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Chapter XII The Man

IT was a hot morning in the veldt, somewhere between Abraham's Kraal and Aasvogel Kop, in what was, as yet, the Orange Free State. We cooked a pumpkin beside a ransacked farmhouse, and felt bitterly resentful of the fact that a belted Staff Officer was chasing a fowl in the background with a drawn sword, and were fiendishly delighted when he tripped over an old wheelbarrow, and got his well-fitting khaki clothes lamentably dusty. He saw us laughing, and looked very angry, and then laughed himself and went inside, leaving the hen to whom she might concern. We were too weakly hungry to be concerned about her.

The mirage shone in the valley, and swallowed up a train of transport-waggons slowly lumbering out of the haze behind. Mile after mile the long procession had staggered by, the cries of the Kaffir drivers came shrilly to us through the clear morning, the cracking of their whips sounded like far-off rifle-shots. A low cloud of reddish dust floated into the blue sky beside the line of march, stragglers drifted past on foot

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and horseback—weary, boot-worn, mulish, patient Tommies, whose rifles seemed to weigh them down; sweating, cursing, disgusted ‘flash’ colonials leading lame horses; sickly boys belonging to Cape regiments, whose worn-out ‘chargers’ had given in at last and were dead behind—all the strangely assorted flotsam and jetsam that struggles wearily and perfunctorily to keep pace with an army marching forced marches.

They were hungry days those—when the army left its base by Modder Bridge, and dived suddenly through the enemy's country in a swift dash for his capital. They were exciting, eventful days. Osfontein had been followed by Driefontein; Driefontein was to be sequelled by the siege and surrender of Bloemfontein. The great battle for which we all looked, but which did not come, was still looming in front of us. Each day brought us closer to what, we thought, was to be the bloodiest struggle of the war. When, three mornings after, we left the regiment upon the Cape-Pretoria railway, and, scouting forward in the uncertain dusk of dawn, from the top of a low ridge beheld the pretty town below us, heard the homely crowing of cocks, and saw the peaceful blue smoke ascending from beneath the early morning coffee-pot, we hardly could believe our eyes. The great final struggle, from which we were to emerge conquerors of all South Africa, and which was to bring Paul Kruger suing hastily for peace, had again

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eluded us—but here, two days before the expected fight, we watched divisions and brigades and guns and teams go past, and cursed fervently the luck that had lamed our horses, and left us, rationless and forlorn, in the tracks of the advance.

My friend was of Roberts' Horse—a full-bearded, tweed-trousered Victorian—for all the world like a Boer, and having nothing soldierly in his make-up, save a worn and faded khaki tunic, a bandolier, a slung rifle, and a straight back. We had foregathered earlier, in a mealie field, and quarrelled over the possession of a pumpkin; but a compromise had established amicable relations, and, at noon, we roasted the heaven-sent vegetable in a fire of shelled mealiecobs, beside that white-washed, abandoned farmhouse.

In the house we had foraged unsuccessfully for food, but everything seemed to have been removed, or destroyed, by its recent tenants. In a barn was a great heap of unthreshed Kaffir corn, but some one had thoughtfully anticipated the coming of hungry rooibaajes by emptying over it a drum of tar.

Upon the stoep without lay an old book—a Dutch Bible, clumsily bound in leather, printed in curious ancient type, and bearing upon its title-page the date sixteen hundred and eighty something in Roman numerals—a veritable treasure and priceless relic for any book lover. In the front was written in faded yellow characters “Gert van somebody,” and a few lines of Scripture. In the back cover was a long list

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of family names, with dates that ranged from 1690 to the end of the seventeenth century—a kind of genealogical tree. Poor people—their terror-stricken flight had been so hurried and hasty that, though they had taken everything beside, they had left what was probably their most beloved heirloom to the spoiler—the accursed bogey of a rooinek, who might have helped them to load it up also, had they only waited.

The Bible was carried in the writer's haversack for three long hours, and it was large and heavy. Then Providence sent another pumpkin into his path, and, there being but room for either food or Gospel, Gospel had to be left in the veldt, and food transported to the camping-ground in place of it. We were very hungry—but now that that hunger is a memory and not a stern reality, regret has taken its place. You never know what manner of a depraved creature you may become until you are really hungry.

As we stood beside our miserable fire eyeing the blackening slices of pumpkin with starving impatience there came another great Staff Officer, trotting hideously, to whom spake the hunter of fowls, emerging from the house. We caught faintly the words “Commander-in-Chief” and “coming,” and in reply—“No; next house—lunch is ready there,” and he of the misshapen riding-trousers trotted back again—a moving eyesore as he bumped upon his uneven way.

And soon after, down from behind the stone cattle-kraal to our left, a group of Staff Officers rode at a

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walk. Behind them came a body-guard of bearded Cape Colonists and Uitlanders. At their head rode a little old man.

He was just as he looks in the portraits that have overrun all the papers of the last two years, and was quite the kind of man one had expected to behold, except in this one particular—that he was even more diminutive than we had expected him to prove. In the Headquarters Staff there were many big men, and this fact may possibly have emphasised the smallness of his stature, but by himself, or in a crowd, he can never be anything else, so far as physical development goes, than ‘little Bobs’.

It was a never-to-be-forgotten morning for the writer—that of the 11th of March, 1900. It was one of those rare times to an Australian when the lump of enthusiasm comes up into your throat, and you can say nothing, and think of nothing, and do nothing—only feel. It seemed impossible to realise that one was really gazing upon one of the idols of one's boyhood, and that, unlike most idols, this one had not proved to have ‘feet of clay’. One thought hurriedly and vaguely of the homesick boy going out to join the Bengal Artillery, years and years ago; of the footnote below his own modest telling of the gallant deed that won him the V.C.; of the Siege of Delhi; of the Kashmir Gate; of John Nicholson; of Cabul and Khandahar; of the dead son lying in Natal; of Paardeberg, of Osfontein, of yesterday—of everything

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about him that could flash through one's mind in half a second.

He barely halted to say a word or two, inaudible to us, to the fowl-hunting Staff Officer, who had mounted his horse and was awaiting the arrival of the Staff before they came—and then he moved on, speaking earnestly to a handsome younger man who rode beside him.

“Who's that crowd?” laconically inquired the Victorian. “Who's the ole feller?” Ignorant swine!

There was little time in which to notice very much before they had come, and passed by, and were out of sight upon the other side of the farmhouse—but one impression, stronger than all others, remains. Of all the Staff he was the freshest and most active-looking by a very great deal. It was not hard to realise that, since the Army had left the camp by Osfontein, it had been a time of great strain and long hours for all of them. The tired, weary figures, sitting their horses stiffly, spoke eloquently enough of the state of being of the Staff as a whole. But the little man at their head rode as a ‘flash’ shearer who has just ‘rung out’ a shed—alert, springy, vigorous, and very fit. Excuse the comparison, you who know flash shearers. It merely refers to deportment.

One has written of him above as a ‘little old man’. ‘Old’ he is—one knows it; and ‘little’—one has seen it. But he is the youngest old man you might come across in a thousand years. His figure is slim,

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and straight, and active. The scrupulously neat khaki uniform fitted him as a glove. The puttee leggings encased the trimmest little legs that ever pressed against stirrup-leathers. His brick-red face had been fresh shaven that morning—one would swear. His was the most graceful form you might ever chance to behold, and he carried himself so bravely, and modestly, and handsomely, that one felt as though some old knight had stepped from a bygone century into this, endowed with all the best attributes of the ‘age of chivalry’. It came across one's thought that here, indeed, was a man of whom it might be said again—‘sans peur et sans reproche’.

He went on, and, full of pumpkin, we, too, went on later in the day; and, in course of time, he led a procession of Guards and other tattered foot soldiers through Bloemfontein, whilst we camped five miles outside, at Wessels' Farm.

The next occasion of the writer seeing the ‘great little man’ was in the Market Square of Bloemfontein as he walked across on foot towards the Club, attended by the beetle-browed Kitchener, and two less important personages who followed a little way behind.

One could not but comment upon the striking contrast presented by the appearance of the two great soldiers—a contrast which is not only of appearance, but of every deed and the manner of its doing. They were both great men—one had but to see them to

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recognise that fact. Even had one never heard of them before it would have been apparent at a glance. But between the stern, relentless, sphinx-like countenance of Kitchener and the kindly humanity that looks from behind the features of Lord Roberts there is a great difference. Only in one characteristic is it possible to compare the two faces—and that is the indefinable something that spells ‘success,’ the strong, steady, sure look that speaks most eloquently of great mental power, of unswerving purpose, of a will before which other wills must bend or break.

In physique every one knows how greatly they differ. Kitchener is a big man, even amongst big men; Lord Roberts is a little man amongst little men. But each of them, according to the scale of his construction, is a splendid specimen of vigorous manhood. The one is comparatively young, straight-formed, sure of step, and long of limb; the other is very old for an active General, and short of limb—so short that were Kitchener to walk with his usual stride, ‘Bobs,’ one thinks, would need to trot, in order to keep pace. But he is just as straight, just as erect, just as imperiously commanding in his looks. Both of them are men of steel.

In course of conversation with an engine-driver on the railway between Kroonstad and the Transvaal capital, the manner of the two men was strikingly exemplified by his words.

“Oh, yes,” he said, “Bobs an' Kitchener comes

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along sometimes. My colonial, y' oughter see the difference at the stations, though! W'en ‘Bobs's’ train pulls up, he gets out an' strolls along the platform, an' everybody knocks off work so's to come up an' have a look at him. He jes' walks about among the crowd, talkin' to 'em like me an' you would. Asks 'em how they're gettin' on for rations, an' so on. 'Course, he's never familiar, or anything like that—y' can always see he's Boss—an' if he notices anything wrong he lets 'em know, quick an' lively—but he seems to be more of a friend to everybody than anything else. But w'en ‘Herbert’ steps out of his carriage there's hardly a soul to be seen on the platform—they're all away diggin' trenches, or mountin' guns, or scoutin' roun' the country—any blessed thing, so long as he can see 'em workin'. Lord help 'em if they ain't! W'y I b'lieve if Kitchener was to be given command of heaven's gates he'd jes' as soon Stellenbosch Peter, spite of all his long service, supposin' he caught him nappin' any warm afternoon!”

On another afternoon, we had been up Maitland Street to where, it was said, a baker baked bread in a little lane that opened from it. We had found the place, and there had been a clamouring queue of Tommies from all the world, so that it seemed one might wait indefinitely on the ‘off’ chance of a loaf of hot bread, and the possibly full chance of getting none. So we had come away mourning, and were leisurely walking down the street on the right-hand

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side as you come towards the Post Office, when we noticed a throng of officers, and tattered privates, and sweating Dutch civilians seeking entrance to the Town House.

“What's on inside?” we asked a military policeman near the door.

“Dunno,” he replied, with the customary ignorance of the British soldier as to what may proceed beneath his nose. “Dunno. Specs it's a meetin' o' they blarsted Christians.”

We went in. Even should they prove to be ‘blarsted Christians’ we were anxious to see what they were about. It was long since we had sat for an hour beneath the roof of a public hall or place of entertainment. It would be almost refreshing not to feel the blueness of the sky overhead for a little while. And so we entered—there were difficulties about doing so. We had to squeeze in through the throng, heedless of protest; and, finally, we stood against the wall under the gallery of a large hall. At the further end was a stage. In the midst of a setting of scene that might have stood for Dunsinane Wood, or the Forest of Arden, or Eugowra Rocks in Robbery under Arms, was a little table with a water-bottle upon it, and a little man—the Little Man—beside it.

All the hushed audience strained its melting faces towards the stage. There was a greasy smell of perspiring men, of new bread, of tobacco-laden breaths. Clumsy feet sometimes shuffled on the floor. But,

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though the hall was packed as tightly as it might be with hotly living soldiery, there was a hushed, exciting silence of the kind you only find when there speaks publicly to a great gathering some one whose most trivial word the gathering does not wish to lose, whom it is worth their while to listen to, and who knows what he is talking about.

He was speaking. We stood upon tip-toes to see him, and strained also so that we might not miss any word he said.

It was a meeting of the Army Temperance Association—apparently organised by the big-bearded chaplain who sat upon his right hand, and who also subsequently said something that was not interesting—and of which, we learned for the first time that afternoon, Lord Roberts was the President.

He spoke quietly, and distinctly, and to the point—he was like a little Maxim, tapping out its emphatic arguments rapidly, unmistakably. There was nothing of the ‘Great-I-am’ or the ‘this-is-so-because-I-say-it’ style of oratory about his speech. It was direct, conclusive, and to the point; and he spoke as one grown man speaks to another. He was not to us, that afternoon, the Commander-in-Chief, telling us what we must do—he was simply our friend ‘Bobs’ suggesting, in all kindliness, what we should do.

He spoke of the march up the Modder. It seemed that it was a greater one than the march to Khandahar. He enlarged upon the privations the troops

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had had to endure, the footsoreness, the weariness, the difficulties of Driefontein. He said how sorry he had been when it was wet, and what a fine thing it was that we had been unable to get drunk. (Well, it possibly was a fine thing.)

He said he had never led such an army as ours, and that he very much doubted whether any one else had done so either. We marched well, we fought well, above all we behaved ourselves well. Under the clear-cut eloquence of the little man we almost managed to believe that we were models of good behaviour. We felt glad that he did not seem to have realised how very dearly we would have liked to loot Bloemfontein, how much we would have enjoyed but half a day of the swashbuckling license that other armies had enjoyed in other wars. We felt sneakingly glad that he had such a good opinion of us. We almost realised what ‘whited sepulchres’ feel like.

But when he went on to enlarge upon the sobriety and steadiness we displayed in the streets of the conquered Free State capital, the absence of crime, and the lack of defaulters, and attributed it all to the temperance principles that actuated the army, we wondered whether, possessing as he did all the elements that go to make a good man, he really lacked in what has been spoken of as the ‘saving grace of humour’.

For this was the state of affairs. You went to the Bloemfontein Hotel and demanded beer. “Are y' an

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orficer?” asked the dissipated ruffian who served the bar.—“No.” “Well, git out quick's yer can.” You went to the Royal Hotel, and the ubiquitous military policeman threatened to run you in. You went to the ‘Masonic,’ seeking refreshment, and, though your tongue hung out a yard by reason of your dryness, they ejected you summarily. One recollected these experiences, and felt almost inclined to call loudly from the back of the hall: “Oh, Bobs, go slow! It wasn't our fault that we were temperate—you funny little man. You seem to be pulling our legs!”

None the less, although he seemed to credit the army as a whole with virtues it did not possess, no one who has ever seen war can fail to realise how much wisdom the commander of an army displays when he prohibits the use of intoxicating liquors to his troops upon entering a town. War is terrible and brutal enough when conducted by sober combatants. What it would be when waged to its logical conclusion by drunken fiends one's imagination almost fails to picture.

One could not say that the speech was a triumph of oratory. It was not. There was nothing dramatic in all its length, nothing whatever that might appeal to the emotions. But it was lucid, clear, forcible—and the manner of its delivery was the manner of the man. It may have been as when a schoolmaster jokes, and all the little boys laugh heartily, but, glancing round the hall at times, it struck one as being

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extraordinary the way in which the ‘Tommies’ hung on to every word that dropped from beneath the grizzled grey moustache, noted every point of the quick discourse, applauded every telling argument brought forward. And most of them seemed to be telling arguments. Never once was there the slightest sign of the air referred to above as that of the ‘it-must-be-right-because-I-say-it’ class. The greatest soldier of the Empire was speaking to some of the meanest, yet at no time did he seem to be conscious of their, and his, relative positions. Always, it was as man to man—never as Commander-in-Chief to Tommy Atkins or Tommy Cornstalk, or any other humble ‘pillar of the Empire’.

He sat down, and the meeting spent ten minutes cheering him. From what one knows of Atkins it is almost safe to say that there could have been scarcely a score of men amongst the soldier audience who were enthusiastic advocates of temperance. In all he saw of them the writer cannot recall one single instance where the British soldiers were not enthusiastic advocates of beer—plenty of beer, unlimited beer. That is one of ‘Tommy's’ faults. He will sell his soul for beer. It was not, one grieves to say, that Tommy applauded the manly and wholesome sentiments of the speaker. It was his fanatic love of the man that prompted him to cheer so heartily. One does not sit in a hot building all through an afternoon to hear the kind of thing, good though it be, that one

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may hear any Sunday afternoon in any park at home. It was to hear the Little Man speak, to listen to his kind voice, to see him, and to look what manner of man he might be, that brought us mostly there.

While he had been speaking one almost fancied that beneath the quiet earnestness of all his words, the clear-cut, hard-hitting sentences, there lurked a vein of sadness, a quiet undertone of grief, which might never come in words to the surface, but which, one still fancied, might nevertheless be there. One thought of the dead son at Colenso, and of the guarded houses, and the lenient proclamations, and the scowling people, and wondered whether there could be many men like this one at our head—who would bear no malice, and evidence no iron hand towards the people who had slain his only son. Of course, he should not have allowed personal feeling to sway his actions in such a manner, but most men would have done so.

Once again, at the Vet River, our Brigade was drawn up on the northern bank, just after crossing, and we were told that the Commander-in-Chief wished to inspect us. We all looked upon it as a privilege, and were eager to have the Little Man ride through our ranks. For we were proud of our Brigade. And then, just as he was coming, the writer and four others of his troop were sent out scouting all the way to Smaldeel. We were infinitely disgusted, but we had to go.

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Months afterwards, as we lay encamped one morning beneath the guns of Daspoort Fort without Pretoria—having been hunted thither by De la Rey from Nitral's Nek during the best part of the previous night—some of us had seen him ride away at noon, and we knew that there had been bad trouble for some one, that some one had felt ‘the heavy hand,’ and congratulated ourselves that we were but simple troopers, having only to obey, and not to take responsibility of failure. There was a set expression of unfeigning anger that boded ill for some one. The iron jaws were close set, and the seamed face hard with an expression that few men would willingly encounter in their superior.

A sentry by the cottage at Sunnyside, of whom one day we asked directions as to the office of the Military Secretary, had spoken of another phase. Lord Roberts stood in the verandah above the garden, talking to some one earnestly and at length. We had asked the sentry jestingly did he know the Little Man?

“Know 'im!” he replied; “w'y, yuss, I jes' do know 'im. Friend o' the fam'ly, 'e is. Day afore yestiddy, 'e comes along the street on foot, an' w'en 'e gits ter the gite, er course I stan's ter ther ‘present’. 'E comes bowlin' in, 's chippy 's if 'e'd bin to a bloomin' dawg-fight. ‘Good arternoon, sentry,’ 'e sez, ‘any one bin arskin' arter the ole man?’ Blime! I was that took back I 'ardly knows wot ter s'y to 'im. Anyw'y,

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I manages ter git out as I didn't think no one 'ad called. ‘Wot's yer nime, sentry?’ 'e sez. So I tells 'im—nime, an' number, an' regimint. ‘Wasn't yer farther with me ter Khanderar?’ 'e sez. Well, Lor lumme! yer could er knocked me hover with a bleedin' swipe—me ole man 'ad bin there, but I didn't think Bobs 'd er mide 'is acquinetance. Well, 'e did. Remembered 'im fer bein' ‘colour’ in a comp'ny wot 'd done somethink or other. Ain't 'e a nobby little bloke? 'E knows crowds an' crowds er blokes, too—an' yit 'e remembers me ole man, jes' w'en 'e 'ears 'is nime!”

This is quite a true story—at least, if it is not, it is the sentry's lie, not mine. But that is one of the many ways by which Bobs has won the love and esteem of all the army. He never forgets a face or a name, they say, of any one he has had to do with, however humble.

And it is the most wonderful thing in all the world—the way they do love him. To the regular army he is almost a god. One sees his influence everywhere, and one never sees it without some good effect. Of course, we Cornstalks and other outlanders of the Empire only knew him as we saw him in South Africa. A few had read his book, a few had worshipped him afar off always.

But it is Tommy Atkins who knows his true worth best. It is Tommy who speaks most gratefully of the life-work of the Little Man.

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For not alone has he been a fighter, though he has seen more fighting than any man alive. There are two rows of ribbons across his jacket. It is not far short of fifty years since he went into action first—since he first heard those whistling noises in the air whose grim import we have learned to recognise but as yesterday, and he has been hearing them ever since.

It is his peace-work, however, as much as his war-work, that has won him the love of all the army. All who read must know of what he has done. We, who have got to know Tommy in some minor aspects of his varied being, can only testify to his grateful appreciation of the efforts of ‘Bobs’ on his behalf. The common soldier at home must have a bad time of it enough even to-day; but the ‘haversack-bred’ men whose fathers were in the ranks before them will tell you how much the conditions of barrack-life have improved, even in their remembrance. Especially will you hear this from men who have served in India. And, even in Africa, the Soldiers' Homes he opened—most excellent of institutions upon active service—in each conquered town were of incalculable benefit to all of us. His first and last efforts always seem to be directed towards the amelioration of the conditions under which his soldiers live. And that is one reason why we all loved him so much.

In the fulness of time he will die. He is an old man now, and in a few years—ten or twenty at the very utmost—the hardships of a hardly spent life will

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have told upon him, iron of brain and constitution though he be. His wars have been wars that have not, at first sight, involved the deaths of mighty empires. There has been no Waterloo for him to win, there has been no lusting ambition in his nature to prompt him to make an Armageddon of his name.

But there is this that may be written in his record—he was a faithful servant of his country, he was a kind master, a humane conqueror, and he was the saviour of the British Empire. Had we lost South Africa we had lost much beside, and it was ‘Bobs’ alone who saved Africa to us. In his time he has held powers that no king or president of to-day may possess and live. He has held lives in the hollow of his hand; he might have poured out blood in fertile lands as a child pours water from a vessel. But always he has been merciful, always just, always loved by any who have had to do with him—even by his country's enemies—and therein lies his greatness.