But at the back of my head there was an uneasiness, based on things that men were telling me about affairs outside England. (The inhabitants of that country never looked further than their annual seaside resorts.) There was trouble too in South Africa after the Jameson Raid which promised, men wrote me, further trouble. Altogether, one had a sense of ‘a sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees’— of things moving into position as troops move. And into the middle of it all came the Great Queen’s Diamond jubilee, and a certain optimism that scared me. The outcome, as far as I was concerned, took the shape of a set of verses called ‘Recessional,’ which were published in The Times in ‘97 at the end of the Jubilee celebrations. It was more in the nature of a nuzzur-wattu (an averter of the Evil Eye), and — with the conservatism of the English — was used in choirs and places where they sing long after our Navy and Army alike had in the name of ‘peace’ been rendered innocuous. It was written just before I went off on Navy manoeuvres with my friend Captain E. H. Bayly. When I returned it seemed to me that the time was ripe for its publication, so, after making one or two changes in it, I gave it to The Times. I say ‘gave’ because for this kind of work I did not take payment. It does not much matter what people think of a man after his death, but I should not like the people whose good opinion I valued to believe that I took money for verses on Joseph Chamberlain, Rhodes, Lord Milner, or any of my South African verse in The Times.
It was this uneasiness of mine which led us down to the Cape in the winter of ‘97, taking the Father with us. There we lived in a boardinghouse at Wynberg, kept by an Irishwoman, who faithfully followed the instincts of her race and spread miseries and discomforts round her in return for good monies. But the children throve, and the colour, light, and half-oriental manners of the land bound chains round our hearts for years to come.
It was here that I first met Rhodes to have any talk with. He was as inarticulate as a school-boy of fifteen. Jameson and he, as I perceived later, communicated by telepathy. But Jameson was not with him at that time. Rhodes had a habit of jerking out sudden questions as disconcerting as those of a child — or the Roman Emperor he so much resembled. He said to me apropos of nothing in particular; ‘What’s your dream?’ I answered that he was part of it, and I think I told him that I had come down to look at things. He showed me some of his newly established fruit farms in the peninsula, wonderful old Dutch houses, stalled in deep peace, and lamented the difficulty of getting sound wood for packing-cases and the shortcomings of native labour. But it was his wish and his will that there should be a fruit growing industry in the Colony, and his chosen lieutenants made it presently come to pass. The Colony then owed no thanks to any Dutch Ministry in that regard. The racial twist of the Dutch (they had taken that title to themselves and called the inhabitants of the Low Countries ‘Hollanders’) was to exploit everything they could which was being done for them, to put every obstacle in the way of any sort of development, and to take all the cash they could squeeze out of it. In which respect they were no better and no worse than many of their brethren. It was against their creed to try and stamp out cattle plagues, to dip their sheep, or to combat locusts, which in a country overwhelmingly pastoral had its drawbacks. Cape Town, as a big distributing centre, was dominated in many ways by rather nervous shopkeepers, who wished to stand well with their customers up-country, and who served as Mayors and occasional public officials. And the aftermath of the Jameson Raid had scared many people.
During the South African War my position among the rank and file came to be unofficially above that of most Generals. Money was wanted to procure small comforts for the troops at the Front and, to this end, the Daily Mail started what must have been a very early ‘stunt.’ It was agreed that I should ask the public for subscriptions. That paper charged itself with the rest. My verses (‘The Absent-minded Beggar’) had some elements of direct appeal but, as was pointed out, lacked ‘poetry.’ Sir Arthur Sullivan wedded the words to a tune guaranteed to pull teeth out of barrel-organs. Anybody could do what they chose with the result, recite, sing, intone or reprint, etc., on condition that they turned in all fees and profits to the main account —‘The Absentminded Beggar Fund’— which closed at about a quarter of a million. Some of this was spent in tobacco. Men smoked pipes more than cigarettes at that epoch, and the popular brand was a cake — chewable also — called ‘Hignett’s True Affection.’ My note-of-hand at the Cape Town depot was good for as much as I cared to take about with me. The rest followed. My telegrams were given priority by sweating R.E. sergeants from all sorts of congested depots. My seat in the train was kept for me by British Bayonets in their shirtsleeves. My small baggage was fought for and servilely carried by Colonial details, who are not normally meek, and I was persona gratissima at certain Wynberg Hospitals where the nurses found I was good for pyjamas. Once I took a bale of them to the wrong nurse (the red capes confused me) and, knowing the matter to be urgent, loudly announced; ‘Sister, I’ve got your pyjamas.’ That one was neither grateful nor very polite.
My attractions led to every sort of delightful or sometimes sorrowful wayside intimacies with all manner of men; and only once did I receive a snub. I was going up to Bloemfontein just after its capture in a carriage taken from the Boers, who had covered its floors with sheep’s guts and onions, and its side with caricatures of ‘Chamberlain’ on a gallows. Otherwise, there was nothing much except woodwork. Behind us was an open truck of British troops whom the Company wag was entertaining by mimicking their officers telling them how to pile horseshoes. As evening fell, I got from him a couple of three-wicked, signal-lamp candles, which gave us at least light to eat by. I naturally wanted to know how he had come by these desirable things. He replied; ‘Look ’ere, Guv’nor, I didn’t ask you ‘ow you come by the baccy you dished out just now. Can’t you bloody well leave me alone?’
In this same ghost-train an Indian officer’s servant (Muhammedan) was worried on a point of conscience. ‘Would this Government issued tin of bully-beef be lawful food for a Muslim?’ I told him that, when Islam wars with unbelievers, the Koran permits reasonable latitude of ceremonial obligations; and he need not hesitate. Next dawn, he was at my bunk-side with Anglo–India’s morning cup of tea. (He must have stolen the hot water from the engine, for there was not a drop in the landscape.) When I asked how the miracle had come about, he replied, with the smile of my own Kadir Baksh; ‘Millar, Sahib,’ signifying that he had found (or ‘made’) it.
My Bloemfontein trip was on Lord Roberts’ order to report and do what I was told. This was explained at the station by two strangers, who grew into my friends for life, H. A. Gwynne, then Head Correspondent of Reuter’s, and Perceval Landon of The Times. ‘You’ve got to help us edit a paper for the troops,’ they said, and forth with inducted me into the newly captured ‘office,’ for Bloemfontein had fallen — Boer fashion — rather like an outraged Sunday School a few days before.
The compositors and the plant were also captives of our bow and spear and rather cross about it — especially the ex-editor’s wife, a German with a tongue. When one saw a compositor, one told him to compose Lord Roberts’ Official Proclamation to the deeply injured enemy. I had the satisfaction of picking up from the floor a detailed account of how Her Majesty’s Brigade of Guards had been driven into action by the fire of our artillery; and a proof of a really rude leader about myself.
There was in that lull a large trade in proclamations — and butter at half a crown the pound. We used all the old stereos, advertising long-since exhausted comestibles, coal and groceries (facepowder, I think, was the only surviving commodity in the Bloemfontein shops), and we enlivened their interstices with our own contributions, supplemented by the works of dusty men, who looked in and gave us very fine copy — mostly libellous.
Julian Ralph, the very best of Americans, was a co-editor also. And he had a grown son who went down with a fever unpleasantly like typhoid. We searched for a competent doctor, and halted a German who, so great was the terror of our arms after the ‘capture,’ demanded haughtily; ‘But who shall pay me for my trouble if I come?’ No one seemed to know, but several men explained who would pay him if he dallied on the way. He took one look at the boy’s stomach, and said happily; ‘Of course it is typhoid.’ Then came the question how to get the case over to hospital, which was rank with typhoid, the Boers having cut the water supply. The first thing was to fetch down the temperature with an alcohol swabbing. Here we were at a standstill till some genius — I think it was Landon — said; ‘I’ve noticed there’s an officer’s wife in the place who’s wearing a fringe.’ On this hint a man went forth into the wide dusty streets, and presently found her, fringe and all. Heaven knows how she had managed to wangle her way up, but she was a sportswoman of purest water. ‘Come to my room,’ said she, and in passing over the priceless bottle, only sighed ‘Don’t use it all — unless you have to.’ We ran the boy down from 103 to a generous 99 and pushed him into hospital, where it turned out that it was not typhoid after all but only bad veldtfever.
First and last there were, I think, eight thousand cases of typhoid in Bloemfontein. Often to my knowledge both ‘ceremonial’ Union jacks in a battalion would be ‘in use ‘at the same time. Extra corpses went to the grave under the Service blanket.
Our own utter carelessness, officialdom and ignorance were responsible for much of the deathrate. I have seen a Horse Battery ‘dead to the wide’ come in at midnight in raging rain and be assigned, by some idiot saving himself trouble, the site of an evacuated typhoid-hospital. Result — thirty cases after a month. I have seen men drinking raw Modder-river a few yards below where the mules were staling; and the organisation and siting of latrines seemed to be considered ‘nigger-work.’ The most important medical office in any battalion ought to be Provost–Marshal of Latrines.
To typhoid was added dysentery, the smell of which is even more depressing than the stench of human carrion. One could wind the dysentery tents a mile off. And remember that, till we planted disease, the vast sun-baked land was antiseptic and sterilised — so much so that a clean abdominal Mauser-wound often entailed no more than a week of abstention from solid food. I found this out on a hospital-train, where I had to head off a mob of angry ‘abdominals’ from regular rations. That was when we were picking up casualties after a small affair called Paardeberg, and the lists — really about two thousand — were carefully minimised to save the English public from ‘shock.’ During this work I happened to fall unreservedly, in darkness, over a man near the train, and filled my palms with gravel. He explained in an even voice that he was ‘fractured ‘ip, sir. ‘Ope you ain’t ‘urt yourself, sir.’ I never got at this unknown Philip Sidney’s name. They were wonderful even in the hour of death — these men and boys — lodge-keepers and ex-butlers of the Reserve and raw town-lads of twenty.
But to return to Bloemfontein. In an interval of our editorial labours, I went out of the town and presently met the ‘solitary horseman’ of the novels. He was a Conductor — Commissariat Sergeant — who reported that the ‘flower of the British Army’ had been ambushed and cut up at a place called ‘Sanna’s Post,’ and passed on obviously discomposed. I had imagined the flower of that Army to be busied behind me reading our paper; but, a short while after, I met an officer who, in the old Indian days, was nicknamed ‘the Sardine.’ He was calm, but rather fuzzy as to the outlines of his uniform, which was frayed and ripped by bullets. Yes, there had been trouble where he came from, but he was fuller for the moment of professional admiration.
‘What was it like? They got us in a donga. Just like going into a theatre. “Stalls left, dress circle right,” don’t you know? We just dropped into the trap, and it was “Infantry this way, please. Guns to the right, if you please.” Beautiful bit of work! How many did they get of us? About twelve hundred, I think, and four — maybe six — guns. Expert job they made of it. That’s the result of bill-stickin’ expeditions.’ And with more compliments to the foe, he too passed on.
By the time that I returned to Bloemfontein the populace had it that eighty thousand Boers were closing in on the town at once, and the Press Censor (Lord Stanley, now Derby) was besieged with persons anxious to telegraph to Cape Town. To him a non-Aryan pushed a domestic wire ‘weather here changeable.’ Stanley, himself a little worried for the fate of some of his friends in that ambuscaded column, rebuked the gentleman.
The Sardine was right about the ‘bill-sticking’ expeditions. Wandering columns had been sent round the country to show how kind the British desired to be to the misguided Boer. But the Transvaal Boer, not being a town-bird, was unimpressed by the ‘fall’ of the Free State capital, and ran loose on the veldt with his pony and Mauser.
So there had to be a battle, which was called the Battle of Kari Siding. All the staff of the Bloemfontein Friend attended. I was put in a Cape cart, with native driver, containing most of the drinks, and with me was a well-known war-correspondent. The enormous pale landscape swallowed up seven thousand troops without a sign, along a front of seven miles. On our way we passed a collection of neat, deep and empty trenches well undercut for shelter on the shrapnel side. A young Guards officer, recently promoted to Brevet–Major — and rather sore with the paper that we had printed it Branch — studied them interestedly. They were the first dim lines of the dug-out, but his and our eyes were held. The Hun had designed them secundum artem, but the Boer had preferred the open within reach of his pony. At last we came to a lone farm-house in a vale adorned with no less than five white flags. Beyond the ridge was a sputter of musketry and now and then the whoop of a field-piece. ‘Here,’ said my guide and guardian, ‘we get out and walk. Our driver will wait for us at the farmhouse.’ But the driver loudly objected. ‘No, sar. They shoot. They shoot me.’ ‘But they are white-flagged all over,’ we said. ‘Yess, sar. That why,’ was his answer, and he preferred to take his mules down into a decently remote donga and wait our return.
The farm-house (you will see in a little why I am so detailed) held two men and, I think, two women, who received us disinterestedly. We went on into a vacant world full of sunshine and distances, where now and again a single bullet sang to himself. What I most objected to was the sensation of being under aimed fire — being, as it were, required as a head. ‘What are they doing this for?’ I asked my friend. ‘Because they think we are the Something Light Horse. They ought to be just under this slope.’ I prayed that the particularly Something Light Horse would go elsewhere, which they presently did, for the aimed fire slackened and a wandering Colonial, bored to extinction, turned up with news from a far flank. ‘No; nothing doing and no one to see.’ Then more cracklings and a most cautious move forward to the lip of a large hollow where sheep were grazing. Some of them began to drop and kick. ‘That’s both sides trying sighting-shots,’ said my companion. ‘What range do you make it?’ I asked. ‘Eight hundred, at the nearest. That’s close quarters nowadays. You’ll never see anything closer than this. Modern rifles make it impossible. We’re hung up till something cracks somewhere.’ There was a decent lull for meals on both sides, interrupted now and again by sputters. Then one indubitable shell — ridiculously like a pip-squeak in that vastness but throwing up much dirt. ‘Krupp! Four or six pounder at extreme range,’ said the expert. ‘They still think we’re the — Light Horse. They’ll come to be fairly regular from now on.’ Sure enough, every twenty minutes or so, one judgmatic shell pitched on our slope. We waited, seeing nothing in the emptiness, and hearing only a faint murmur as of wind along gas-jets, running in and out of the unconcerned hills.
Then pom-poms opened. These were nasty little one-pounders, ten in a belt (which usually jammed about the sixth round). On soft ground they merely thudded. On rock-face the shell breaks up and yowls like a cat. My friend for the first time seemed interested. ‘If these are their pom-poms, it’s Pretoria for us,’ was his diagnosis. I looked behind me — the whole length of South Africa down to Cape Town — and it seemed very far. I felt that I could have covered it in five minutes under fair conditions, but — not with those aimed shots up my back. The pom-poms opened again at a bare rock-reef that gave the shells full value. For about two minutes a file of racing ponies, their tails and their riders’ heads well down, showed and vanished northward. ‘Our pom-poms,’ said the correspondent. ‘Le Gallais, I expect. Now we shan’t be long.’ All this time the absurd Krupp was faithfully feeling for us, vice-Light Horse, and, given a few more hours, might perhaps hit one of us. Then to the left, almost under us, a small piece of hanging woodland filled and fumed with our shrapnel much as a man’s moustache fills with cigarette-smoke. It was most impressive and lasted for quite twenty minutes. Then silence; then a movement of men and horses from our side up the slope, and the hangar our guns had been hammering spat steady fire at them. More Boer ponies on more skylines; a last flurry of pom-poms on the right and a little frieze of far-off meek-tailed ponies, already out of rifle range.
‘Maffeesh,’ said the correspondent, and fell to writing on his knee. ‘We’ve shifted ’em.’
Leaving our infantry to follow men on ponyback towards the Equator, we returned to the farm-house. In the donga where he was waiting someone squibbed off a rifle just after we took our seats, and our driver flogged out over the rocks to the danger of our sacred bottles.
Then Bloemfontein, and Gwynne storming in late with his accounts complete-one hundred and twenty-five casualties, and the general opinion that ‘French was a bit of a butcher’ and a tale of the General commanding the cavalry who absolutely refused to break up his horses by gallop ing them across raw rock —‘not for any dam’ Boer.’
Months later, I got a cutting from an American paper, on information from Geneva — even then a pest-house of propaganda — describing how I and some officers — names, date, and place correct — had entered a farm-house where we found two men and three women. We had dragged the women from under the bed where they had taken refuge (I assure you that no Tantie Sannie of that day could bestow herself beneath any known bed) and, giving them a hundred yards’ start, had shot them down as they ran.
Even then, the beastliness struck me as more comic than significant. But by that time I ought to have known that it was the Hun’s reflection of his own face as he spied at our back-windows. He had thrown in the ‘hundred yards’ start’ touch as a tribute to our national sense of fair play.
From the business point of view the war was ridiculous. We charged ourselves step by step with the care and maintenance of all Boerdom — women and children included. Whence horrible tales of our atrocities in the concentration-camps.
One of the most widely exploited charges was our deliberate cruelty in making prisoners’ tents and quarters open to the north. A Miss Hobhouse among others was loud in this matter, but she was to be excused.
We were showing off our newly-built little ‘Woolsack’ to a great lady on her way upcountry, where a residence was being built for her. At the larder the wife pointed out that it faced south-that quarter being the coldest when one is south of the Equator. The great lady considered the heresy for a moment. Then, with the British sniff which abolishes the absurd, ‘Hmm! I shan’t allow that to make any difference to me.’
Some Army and Navy Stores Lists were introduced into the prisoners’ camps, and the women returned to civil life with a knowledge of corsets, stockings, toilet-cases, and other accessories frowned upon by their clergymen and their husbands. Qua women they were not very lovely, but they made their men fight, and they knew well how to fight on their own lines.
In the give-and-take of our work our troops got to gauge the merits of the commando-leaders they were facing. As I remember the scale, De Wet, with two hundred and fifty men, was to be taken seriously. With twice that number he was likely to fall over his own feet. Smuts (of Cambridge), warring, men assured me, in a black suit, trousers rucked to the knees, and a top-hat, could handle five hundred but, beyond that, got muddled. And so with the others. I had the felicity of meeting Smuts as a British General, at the Ritz during the Great War. Meditating on things seen and suffered, he said that being hunted about the veldt on a pony made a man think quickly, and that perhaps Mr. Balfour (as he was then) would have been better for the same experience.
Each commando had its own reputation in the field, and the grizzlier their beards the greater our respect. There was an elderly contingent from Wakkerstroom which demanded most cautious handling. They shot, as you might say, for the pot. The young men were not so good. And there were foreign contingents who insisted on fighting after the manner of Europe. These the Boers wisely put in the forefront of the battle and kept away from. In one affair the Zarps — the Transvaal Police — fought brilliantly and were nearly all killed. But they were Swedes for the most part, and we were sorry.
Occasionally foreign prisoners were gathered in. Among them I remember a Frenchman who had joined for pure logical hatred of England, but, being a professional, could not resist telling us how we ought to wage the war. He was quite sound but rather cantankerous.
The ‘war’ became an unpleasing compost of ‘political considerations,’ social reform, and housing; maternity-work and variegated absurdities. It is possible, though I doubt it, that first and last we may have killed four thousand Boers. Our own casualties, mainly from preventible disease, must have been six times as many.
The junior officers agreed that the experience ought to be a ‘first-class dress-parade for Armageddon,’ but their practical conclusions were misleading. Long-range, aimed rifle-fire would do the work of the future; troops would never get nearer each other than half a mile, and Mounted Infantry would be vital. This was because, having found men on foot cannot overtake men on ponies, we created eighty thousand of as good Mounted Infantry as the world had seen. For these Western Europe had no use. Artillery preparation of wire-works, such as were not at Magersfontein, was rather overlooked in the reformers’ schemes, on account of the difficulty of bringing up ammunition by horse-power. The pom-poms, and Lord Dundonald’s galloping light gun-carriages, ate up their own weight in shell in three or four minutes.
In the ramshackle hotel at Bloemfontein, where the correspondents lived and the officers dropped in, one heard free and fierce debate as points came up, but — since no one dreamt of the internal-combustion engine that was to stand the world on its thick head, and since our wireless apparatus did not work in those landscapes — we were all beating the air.
Eventually the ‘war’ petered out on political lines. Brother Boer — and all ranks called him that — would do everything except die. Our men did not see why they should perish chasing stray commandoes, or festering in block-houses, and there followed a sort of demoralising ‘handy-pandy’ of alternate surrenders complicated by exchange of Army tobacco for Boer brandy which was bad for both sides.
At long last, we were left apologising to a deeply-indignant people, whom we had been nursing and doctoring for a year or two; and who now expected, and received, all manner of free gifts and appliances for the farming they had never practised. We put them in a position to uphold and expand their primitive lust for racial domination, and thanked God we were ‘rid of a knave.’
* * * * *
Into these shifts and changes we would descend yearly for five or six months from the peace of England to the deeper peace of ‘The Woolsack,’ and life under the oak-trees overhanging the patio, where mother-squirrels taught their babies to climb, and in the stillness of hot afternoons the fall of an acorn was almost like a shot. To one side of us was a pine and eucalyptus grove, heavy with mixed scent; in front our garden, where anything one planted out in May became a blossoming bush by December. Behind all tiered the flank of Table Mountain and its copses of silvertrees, flanking scarred ravines. To get to Rhodes’ house, ‘Groote Schuur,’ one used a path through a ravine set with hydrangeas, which in autumn (England’s spring) were one solid packed blue river. To this Paradise we moved each year-end from 1900 to 1907 — a complete equipage of governess, maids and children, so that the latter came to know and therefore, as children will, to own the Union Castle Line — stewards and all and on any change of governess to instruct the new hand how cabins were set away for a long voyage and ‘what went where.’ Incidentally we lost two governesses and one loved cook by marriage, the tepid seas being propitious to such things.
Ship-board life, going and coming, was a mere prolongation of South Africa and its interests. There were Jews a plenty from the Rand; Pioneers; Native Commissioners dealing with Basutos or Zulus; men of the Matabele Wars and the opening of Rhodesia; prospectors; politicians of all stripes, all full of their business Army officers also, and from one of these, when I expected no such jewel, I got a tale called ‘Little Foxes’— so true in detail that an awed Superintendent of Police wrote me out of Port Sudan, demanding how I had come to know the very names of the hounds in the very pack to which he had been Whip in his youth. But, as I wrote him back, I had been talking with the Master.
Jameson, too, once came home with us, and disgraced himself at the table which we kept for ourselves. A most English lady with two fair daughters had been put there our first day out, and when she rightly enough objected to the quality of the food, and called it prison fare, Jameson said; ‘Speaking as one of the criminal classes, I assure you it is worse.’ At the next meal the table was all our own.
But the outward journey was the great joy because it always included Christmas near the Line, where there was no room for memories; seasonable inscriptions written in soap on the mirrors by skilly stewards; and a glorious fancydress ball. Then, after the Southern Cross had well risen above the bows, the packing away of heavy kit, secure it would not be needed till May, the friendly, well-known Mountain and the rush to the garden to see what had happened in our absence; the flying barefoot visit to our neighbours the Strubens at Strubenheim, where the children were regularly and lovingly spoiled; the large smile of the Malay laundress, and the easy pick-up-again of existence.
Life went well then, and specially for the children, who had all the beasts on the Rhodes estate to play with. Uphill lived the lions, Alice and Jumbo, whose morning voices were the signal for getting up. The zebra paddock, which the emus also used, was immediately behind ‘The Woolsack’— a slope of scores of acres. The zebras were always play-fighting like Lions and Unicorns on the Royal Arms; the game being to grab the other’s fore-leg below the knee if it could not snatch it away. No fence could hold them when they cared to shift. Jameson and I once saw a family of three returning from an excursion. A heavy sneeze-wood-post fence and wires lay in the path, blind-tight except where the lowest wire spanned a small ditch. Here Papa kneeled, snouted under the wire till it slid along his withers, hove it up, and so crawled through. Mamma and Baby followed in the same fashion. At this, an aged lawn-mower pony who was watching conceived he might also escape, but got no further than backing his fat hind-quarters against one of the posts, and turning round from time to time in wonder that it had not given way. It was, as Jameson said, the complete allegory of the Boer and the Briton.
In another paddock close to the house lived a spitting llama, whose peculiarity the children learned early. But their little visitors did not, and, if they were told to stand close to the fence and make noises, they did — once. You can see the rest.
But our most interesting visitor was a bull-kudu of some eighteen hands. He would jump the seven-foot fence round our little peach orchard, hook a loaded branch in the great rings of his horns, rend it off with a jerk, eat the peaches, leaving the stones, and lift himself over the wires, like a cloud, up the flank of Table Mountain. Once, coming home after dinner, we met him at the foot of the garden, gigantic in the moonlight, and fetched a compass round him, walking delicately, the warm red dust in our shoes; because we knew that a few days before the keepers had given him a dose of small shot in his stern for chasing somebody’s cook.
The children’s chaperon on their walks was a bulldog — Jumbo — of terrific aspect, to whom all Kaffirs gave full right of way. There was a legend that he had once taken hold of a native and, when at last removed, came away with his mouth full of native. Normally, he lay about the house and apologised abjectly when anyone stepped on him. The children fed him with currant buns and then, remembering that currants were indigestible, would pick them out of his back teeth while he held his dribbling jaws carefully open.
A baby lion was another of our family for one winter. His mother, Alice, desiring to eat him when born, he was raked out with broomsticks from her side and taken to ‘Groote Schuur’ where, in spite of the unwilling attentions of a she-dog foster-mother (he had of course the claws of a cat) he pined. The wife hinted that, with care, he might recover. ‘Very good,’ said Rhodes. ‘I’ll send him over to “The Woolsack” and you can try.’ He came, with corrugated-iron den and foster-mother complete. The latter the wife dismissed; went out and bought stout motor-gloves, and the largest of babies’ bottles, and fed him forthwith. He highly approved of this, and ceased not to pull at the bottle till it was all empty. His tummy was then slapped, as it might have been a water-melon, to be sure that it rang full, and he went to sleep. Thus he lived and throve in his den, which the children were forbidden to enter, lest their caresses should injure him.
When he was about the size of a large rabbit, he cut little pins of teeth, and made coughing noises which he was persuaded were genuine roars. Later, he developed rickets, and I was despatched to an expert at Cape Town to ask for a cure. ‘Too much milk,’ said the expert. ‘Give him real, not cold-storage, boiled mutton-broth.’ This at first he refused to touch in the saucer, but was induced to lick the wife’s dipped finger, whence he removed the skin. His ears were boxed, and he was left alone with the saucer to learn table-manners. He wailed all night, but in the morning lapped like a lion among Christians, and soon got rid of his infirmity. For three months he was at large among us, incessantly talking to himself as he wandered about the house or in the garden where he stalked butterflies. He dozed on the stoep, I noticed, due north and south, looking with slow eyes up the length of Africa — always a little aloof, but obedient to the children, who at that time wore little more than one garment apiece. We returned him in perfect condition on our departure for England, and he was then the size of a bull-terrier but not so high. Rhodes and Jameson were both away. He was put in a cage, fed, like his family, on imperfectly thawed cold-storage meats fouled in the grit of his floor, and soon died of colic. But M’Slibaan, which we made Matabele for ‘Sullivan,’ as fitted his Matabele ancestry, was always honoured among the many kind ghosts that inhabited ‘The Woolsack.’
Lions, as pets, are hardly safe after six months old; but here is an exception. A man kept a lioness up-country till she was a full year old, and then, with deep regret on both sides, sent her to Rhodes’s Zoo. Six months later he came down, and with a girl who did not know what fear was entered her cage, where she received him fawning, rolling, crooning — almost weeping with love and delight. Theoretically, of course, he and the girl ought to have been killed, but they took no hurt at all.
During the war, by some luck our water-supply had not been restricted, and our bath was of the type you step down into and soak in at full length. Hence also Gwynne, filthy after months of the veldt, standing afar off like a leper. (‘I say, I want a bath and — there’s my kit in the garden. No, I haven’t left it on the stoep. It’s crawling.’) Many came. As the children put it: ‘There’s always lots of dirty ones.’
When Rhodes was hatching his scheme of the Scholarships, he would come over and, as it were, think aloud or discuss, mainly with the wife, the expense side of the idea. It was she who suggested that £250 a year was not enough for scholars who would have to carry themselves through the long intervals of an Oxford ‘year.’ So he made it three hundred. My use to him was mainly as a purveyor of words; for he was largely inarticulate. After the idea had been presented — and one had to know his code for it — he would say: ‘What am I trying to express? Say it, say it.’ So I would say it, and if the phrase suited not, he would work it over, chin a little down, till it satisfied him.
The order of his life at ‘Groote Schuur’ was something like this. The senior guest allotted their rooms to men who wished to ‘see’ him. They did not come except for good reason connected with their work, and they stayed till Rhodes ‘saw them, which might be two or three days. His heart compelled him to lie down a good deal on a huge couch on the marble-flagged verandah facing up Table Mountain towards the four-acre patch of hydrangeas, which lay out like lapis-lazuli on the lawns. He would say; ‘Well, So-and-so. I see you. What is it?’ And the case would be put.
There was a man laying the Cape-to-Cairo telegraph, who had come to a stretch of seventy miles beside a lake, where the ladies of those parts esteemed copper above gold, and took it from the poles for their adornment. What to do? When he had finished his exposition Rhodes, turning heavily on his couch, said; ‘You’ve got some sort of lake there, haven’t you? Lay it like a cable. Don’t bother me with a little thing like that.’ Palaver done set, and at his leisure the man returned.
One met interesting folk at ‘Groote Schuur’ meals, which often ended in long talks of the days of building up Rhodesia.
During the Matabele War Rhodes, with some others, under a guide, had wandered on horseback beyond the limits of safety, and had to take refuge in some caves. The situation was eminently unhealthy, and in view of some angry Matabeles hunting them they had to spur out of it. But the guide, just when the party were in the open, was foolish enough to say something to the effect that Rhodes’s ‘valuable life’ was to be considered. Upon which Rhodes pulled up and said; ‘Let’s get this straight before we go on. You led us into this mess, didn’t you?’ ‘Yes, sir, yes. But please come on.’ ‘No. Wait a minute. Consequently you’re running to save your own hide, aren’t you?’ ‘Yes, sir. We all are.’ ‘That’s all right. I only wanted to have it settled. Now we’ll come on.’ And they did, but it was a close shave. I heard this at his table, even as I heard his delayed reply to a query by a young officer who wished to know what Rhodes thought of him and his career. Rhodes postponed his answer till dinner and then, in his characteristic voice, laid down that the young man would eminently succeed, but only to a certain point, because he was always thinking of his career and not of the job he was doing. Thirty later years proved the truth of his verdict.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10