MoboReader > Literature > From Capetown to Ladysmith: An Unfinished Record of the South African War

   Chapter 1 FIRST GLIMPSES OF THE STRUGGLE.

From Capetown to Ladysmith: An Unfinished Record of the South African War By G. W. Steevens Characters: 8016

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


FIRST IMPRESSIONS-DENVER WITH A DASH OF DELHI-GOVERNMENT HOUSE-THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY-A WRANGLING DEBATE-A DEMONSTRATION OF THE UNEMPLOYED-THE MENACE OF COMING WAR.

Capetown, Oct. 10.

This morning I awoke, and behold the Norman was lying alongside a wharf at Capetown. I had expected it, and yet it was a shock. In this breathless age ten days out of sight of land is enough to make you a merman: I looked with pleased curiosity at the grass and the horses.

After the surprise of being ashore again, the first thing to notice was the air. It was as clear-but there is nothing else in existence clear enough with which to compare it. You felt that all your life hitherto you had been breathing mud and looking out on the world through fog. This, at last, was air, was ether.

Right in front rose three purple-brown mountains-the two supporters peaked, and Table Mountain flat in the centre. More like a coffin than a table, sheer steep and dead flat, he was exactly as he is in pictures; and as I gazed, I saw his tablecloth of white cloud gather and hang on his brow.

It was enough: the white line of houses nestling hardly visible between his foot and the sea must indeed be Capetown.

Presently I came into it, and began to wonder what it looked like. It seemed half Western American with a faint smell of India-Denver with a dash of Delhi. The broad streets fronted with new-looking, ornate buildings of irregular heights and fronts were Western America; the battle of warming sun with the stabbing morning cold was Northern India. The handsome, blood-like electric cars, with their impatient gongs and racing trolleys, were pure America (the motor-men were actually imported from that hustling clime to run them). For Capetown itself-you saw it in a moment-does not hustle. The machinery is the West's, the spirit is the East's or the South's. In other cities with trolley-cars they rush; here they saunter. In other new countries they have no time to be polite; here they are suave and kindly and even anxious to gossip. I am speaking, understand, on a twelve hours' acquaintance-mainly with that large section of Capetown's inhabitants that handled my baggage between dock and rail way-station. The niggers are very good-humoured, like the darkies of America. The Dutch tongue sounds like German spoken by people who will not take the trouble to finish pronouncing it.

All in all, Capetown gives you the idea of being neither very rich nor very poor, neither over-industrious nor over-lazy, decently successful, reasonably happy, whole-heartedly easy-going.

The public buildings-what I saw of them-confirm the idea of a placid half-prosperity. The place is not a baby, but it has hardly taken the trouble to grow up. It has a post-office of truly German stability and magnitude. It has a well-organised railway station, and it has the merit of being in Adderley Street, the main thoroughfare of the city: imagine it even possible to bring Euston into the Strand, and you will get an idea of the absence of push and crush in Capetown.

When you go on to look at Government House the place keeps its character: Government House is half a country house and half a country inn. One sentry tramps outside the door, and you pay your respects to the Governor in shepherd's plaid.

Over everything brooded peace, except over one flamboyant many-winged building of red brick and white stone with a garden about it, an avenue-a Capetown avenue, shady trees and cool but not large: attractive and not imposing-at one side of it, with a statue of the Queen before and broad-flagged stairs behind. It was the Parliament House. The Legislative Assembly-their House of Commons-was characteristically small, yet characteristically roomy and characteristically comfortable. The members sit on flat green-leather cushions, two or three on a bench, and each man's name is above his seat: no jostling for Capetown. The slip of Press gallery is above the Speaker's head; the sloping uncrowded pu

blic gallery is at the other end, private boxes on one side, big windows on the other. Altogether it looks like a copy of the Westminster original, improved by leaving nine-tenths of the members and press and public out.

Yet here-alas, for placid Capetown!-they were wrangling. They were wrangling about the commandeering of gold and the sjamboking-shamboking, you pronounce it-of Johannesburg refugees. There was Sir Gordon Sprigg, thrice Premier, grey-bearded, dignified, and responsible in bearing and speech, conversationally reasonable in tone. There was Mr Schreiner, the Premier, almost boyish with plump, smooth cheeks and a dark moustache. He looks capable, and looks as if he knows it: he, too, is conversational, almost jerky, in speech, but with a flavour of bitterness added to his reason.

Everything sounded quiet and calm enough for Capetown-yet plainly feeling was strained tight to snapping. A member rose to put a question, and prefaced it with a brief invective against all Boers and their friends. He would go on for about ten minutes, when suddenly angry cries of "Order!" in English and Dutch would rise. The questioner commented with acidity on the manners of his opponents. They appealed to the chair: the Speaker blandly pronounced that the hon. gentleman had been out of order from the first word he uttered. The hon. gentleman thereon indignantly refused to put his question at all; but, being prevailed to do so, gave an opening to a Minister, who devoted ten minutes to a brief invective against all Uitlanders and their friends. Then up got one of the other side-and so on for an hour. Most delicious of all was a white-haired German, once colonel in the Hanoverian Legion which was settled in the Eastern Province, and which to this day remains the loyallest of her Majesty's subjects. When the Speaker ruled against his side he counselled defiance in a resounding whisper; when an opponent was speaking he snorted thunderous derision; when an opponent retorted he smiled blandly and admonished him: "Ton't lose yer demper."

In the Assembly, if nowhere else, rumbled the menace of coming war.

One other feature there was that was not Capetown. Along Adderley Street, before the steamship companies' offices, loafed a thick string of sun-reddened, unshaven, flannel-shirted, corduroy-trousered British working-men. Inside the offices they thronged the counters six deep. Down to the docks they filed steadily with bundles to be penned in the black hulls of homeward liners. Their words were few and sullen. These were the miners of the Rand-who floated no companies, held no shares, made no fortunes, who only wanted to make a hundred pounds to furnish a cottage and marry a girl.

They had been turned out of work, packed in cattle-trucks, and had come down in sun by day and icy wind by night, empty-bellied, to pack off home again. Faster than the ship-loads could steam out the trainloads steamed in. They choked the lodging-houses, the bars, the streets. Capetown was one huge demonstration of the unemployed. In the hotels and streets wandered the pale, distracted employers. They hurried hither and thither and arrived nowhither; they let their cigars go out, left their glasses half full, broke off their talk in the middle of a word. They spoke now of intolerable grievance and hoarded revenge, now of silent mines, rusting machinery, stolen gold. They held their houses in Johannesburg as gone beyond the reach of insurance. They hated Capetown, they could not tear themselves away to England, they dared not return to the Rand.

This little quiet corner of Capetown held the throbbing hopes and fears of all Johannesburg and more than half the two Republics and the mass of all South Africa.

None doubted-though many tried to doubt-that at last it was-war! They paused an instant before they said the word, and spoke it softly. It had come at last-the moment they had worked and waited for-and they knew not whether to exult or to despair.

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