THE Boers had wrecked the three centre spans and blown huge pieces out of the stone piers. The wreckage lay adrift in the dirty water, and a section of the British Army was now picking up the pieces. A pontoon bridge had been thrown across the river. You reached it by way of a steep sandy track through the scrub; and on the north bank met a steeper, sandier scarp that climbed out past the haunches of the bridge under the edge of a rocky embankment. Till the temporary railway-trestle was finished, this plunge and that scramble were the only path into the Orange Free State. Hither came McManus, head of the Corporate Equatorial Bank of South Africa, on urgent business. He had been summoned to Bloemfontein by the Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief, who, with the High Commissioner, was then striving to disentangle some finances which President Steyn had dropped. In his inner pocket lay a pass calling on all officers, civil and military, to assist and expedite R. L. McManus, Esq., by every means in their power; for the State had need of him. And his time — which meant other people’s money as well as his own — was valuable.
McManus was not used to passes. As a rule of thirty years, few people interfered with his uprisings or downsittings. He was known to remotest Dutch farmers as an institution representing an institution, from the edge of the Kalahari desert to the outskirts of Portuguese territory — from Salisbury, where they lend money on mortgage, to the Cape Flats, where they foreclose on villa property. His grizzled head held most intimate knowledge of South Africa’s finances for the last quarter of a century; and his word, when they importuned him to speak, was law alike to speculative Bond or Progressive Ministries. Cape Town knew that he had been called up to Bloemfontein and flashed the news to Natal and Kimberley; nor need we for an instant doubt that Pretoria knew it within twelve hours of his departure from the coast. The Corporate Equatorial had been chased out of Bloemfontein with bad words early in the war. Its return signified more than an army corps victorious.
McManus, his Secretary, and half-a-dozen fellow-travellers came in a desolate evening to the southern end of Folly Bridge. A simple race of God-fearing herdsmen had been there before them. The platform, after three days’ vehement cleansing, still reeked of putrid onions, stable litter, and the remnants of bloody sheepskins. They had defiled the corners of every room they had lived in, as dirty little boys defile abandoned houses. They had removed everything save the door-locks, and had left in exchange a portrait in crayon on the wall of one ‘Chamerlain at Modder’, which represented an eye-glassed person dangling at a rope’s end.
‘My word! ‘said a New Zealand doctor, hoping to join his countrymen in the big camps to the North, ‘this is a lovely land to fight over! When do you suppose we go on to Bloemfontein?’
‘I’d give something to know why McManus is going up,’ said the Captain of a troop of Colonial Horse, returning from a Karoo hospital.
‘Who’s McManus?’ said the New Zealander.
‘Good Lord!’ the South African replied, aghast at his ignorance. ‘He’s McManus. He’s in the carriage now. You’ll see he won’t get out. He’s got all his skoff with him. He’ll have a decent dinner — soda-water too.’
The Colonial had been picked up out of the tangled Colesberg kopjes, where soda-water was scarce.
‘I’m going up with the Little Man’s private letters.’ This was an officer late of the Bengal Army.’ That ought to be good for a reserved compartment in a cattle-truck. Wonder how long we’ll have to wait.’ He stumbled forth, grasping the Commander-in-Chief’s private mail-bag. The noises of a full camp filled their ears, but the station was void and black.
‘There must be a Railway Staff Officer somewhere,’ a young and brisk Gunner murmured.’ Let’s find him. Isn’t that a light at the end of the platform? Phew! How the place stinks! ‘
They formed an untidy little procession, and, falling over sleeping men and stray baggage, found at last a bare room, lighted with three candles in beer-bottles, and somewhat over-furnished with two men, both in khaki—one of them very angry.
‘But — but — confound it all,’ said the latter. ‘How did it come to be broached, Guard?’
‘I don’t know, sir. My business is to report it to you. One case of whisky with the top smashed in, and a bottle gone between here an’ Arundel. They’re always doin’ it along the line, sir. I think it’s those dam’ Irregular Corps.’
Yes, that’s all very fine, but how did it come to be broached? Well, never mind — never mind. I shall report it, of course.’
‘Report it!’ whispered a Sapper, with documents for the Intelligence Department. ‘They’ve been looting the Staff’s Reserve baggage down the line. A lot they’ll care for one bottle o’ whisky missing.’
‘What can I do for you, gentlemen,’ said the Railway Staff Officer, when the train Guard had withdrawn.
‘We want to know how we can get on to Bloemfontein.’
‘Not another train till to-morrow night. You’ll have to wait till then.’ The R.S.O. drummed merrily on the table.
It meant a check of twenty-four hours, and someone said so.
‘It isn’t my fault,’ said the R.S.O. I assure you it would give me the greatest pleasure personally to shoot rubbish up the line, but I have my orders; and I’ve nothing more to do with it. I’ve noticed that every man who comes up thinks his business is the one thing I’ve got to attend to, and that the whole Army will go to pieces if he isn’t sent to the Front at once, but — Hullo! What do these Kaffirs want? Been out of the camp without a pass?’
Four Kaffirs were thrust into the room, and the company departed, leaving the R.S.O. to execute justice according to his own lights and those in the beer-bottles.
‘My word’ said the New Zealander. ‘But we didn’t make a fuss about not going up, did we Why was he so stuffy? Who is that man?’
‘He has been here precisely nine days,’ said a dry voice in the darkness. ‘Nine whole days in Africa. He has his orders. We’ll hear a lot about those orders before we leave. Now let’s see if we can whack up something to eat.’
‘Get a light first,’ said the Gunner. ‘If we could find some oil, we’d light the lamps in our carriage. Morgan, go an’ unscrew the lamps an’ bring ’em out here. I’ll look for oil. Hi.’ (This to a shadow that passed). ‘Where do you keep your lamp-oil?’
‘In the lamp-room, of course. I’m the Station-master,’ was the fretful reply.
‘I beg your pardon. You must be awfully hard-worked. Don’t bother. We’ll get it.’
‘Thank you, sir. Yes, we’re working twenty hours a day. There’s the oil. I’ll strike a match, and you can get the cork out of — ‘ ‘No, you won’t! Chuck that match away. I’d sooner waste your oil than set myself alight, Morgan. Bring the lamps here. I’ll fill ’em.’
‘One of the lamps ain’t empty at all.’ Morgan’s voice came across the siding with a rising snarl. ‘It’s full. It’s trickling all down my cuff.’
‘Never mind. Bring what’s left. We must see to eat.’
The lamps were filled and lit rough-handedly; and plate by plate, and tin by tin, with jack-knives for tin-openers, a meal was dragged together.
The Railway Staff Officer suggested that it should be eaten in his room, and there enlarged on the duties and responsibilities of his office. But the company were tired. Moreover, R.S.O.’s were old birds to them. They knew not fewer than eighty of the breed, and some had been R.S.O.s themselves.
‘I think,’ said the New Zealand doctor, skewering cold tinned herring on a pocket-knife, ‘before I talked about shooting rubbish up the line, I’d try to burn a little of the muck that’s lying about the station. Sweeping isn’t any earthly good.’
‘Oh, that department is probably in charge of the Officer Commanding the Royal Engine-eahs,’ said the Colonial Captain, with a short dry laugh. He had served since the outbreak of the war, and counted thirteen engagements to his credit.
‘A little of the lamp-oil we wasted and a match would do wonders,’ the New Zealander insisted.
‘Don’t presume to dictate to the Army,’ an Imperial Officer said, proudly. ‘I’ll back an R.S.O. against anyone except’ — he looked across the table — ‘a Sapper.’
‘We’re learning. I swear we are learning.’ The young Engineer flushed. ‘We aren’t such fools as we were. The Colonials have taught us a lot. Take that Railway Pioneer Corps that’s laying down the new line on the north bank, for instance.’
‘Yes,’ the Colonial Captain grunted. ‘They’re the pick of the Rand — all mine-managers and machinists and engineers and boiler-makers. They’re working double shifts to finish the track, because they want to get home to Johannesburg. Yes, I know about them.’ Again he laughed unpleasantly.
‘What?’ the New Zealander asked.
‘Oh, the usual thing. They worked day and night, and, of course, they wanted more than Service rations, so their commandant, Phil Tenbroek — he’s a big mine-manager when he’s at home — bought a lot of Bovril and pea-meal, and made soup of it, and served it out to ’em at night. You can see their flare-lamps across the river now, if you look. Day and night they work. Well, the authorities found he’d spent five whole pounds Government money, and they told him he wasn’t to do it. Mind you, that’s now — now — now — when every day — what am I talking of? — every hour’s work means several thousands of pounds saved. Yes, they told him the expenditure was unauthorised.’
‘And then?’ said the young Sapper uneasily.
‘Oh, then. You know Phil Tenbroek. At least I do. Phil sent a wire to Port Elizabeth on his own hook for fifty pounds’ worth of Bovril and pea-meal. He paid out of his pocket, of course; but Philly wants to get back to the Rand as soon as possible, and, it seemed to him the sooner the new line was laid the better. And they’d have crippled the whole Corps — the best engineers in the world — for a fiver! Nice tale, isn’t it? True, too. Look at their flare-lamps! They work.’
Far away across the dark to the northward of the formless country ran a line of fire-dots. The Railway Pioneer Corps were at work on the new track that was to connect with the temporary trestle-bridge. A dull boom came up the gorge between the kopjes.
Blasting away the wreckage,’ the Colonial explained. ‘Risky work at night, but Phil told ’em he was in a hurry. Oh, Philly Tenbroek is a man. I bet he hasn’t taken off his clothes for a week.’
Morning, hot and sultry, put out the flare-lamps on the north of the river, and brought in a train-load of troops from the South to be added to the acres of dusty tentage around Folly Bridge. The travellers, including McManus, had seen men and guns and buck-wagons, doctors, dust and wounded — stony hills and scrub-strewn downs — a few hundred times before. It pleased them better to observe the R.S.O. as he faced the tenth day of his official life. The four Kaffirs had been disposed of, but he was still troubled about the broached whisky, and much annoyed by the eccentricities of lunatic civilians, who, solely for the jest of it, wished to know when they could get goods up to Bloemfontein. The big railway junction thirty miles behind him was also a nuisance. It complained of a congested goods-yard, and desired him to take trucks. Now, his desire was to keep his end of the line neat and open, and, so far, he had succeeded. He drew attention with pride to the long empty sidings, which he had ‘saved,’ though he did not exactly specify the purpose of his economies. There were far too many people, he said, anxious to go to Bloemfontein. Officers, of course, if their passes were in perfect order, might be allowed; but these idle civilians, he was free to say, annoyed him. They simply had no conception of military matters, and they never seemed to think a man had orders. However, he had his orders, and he meant to carry them out. What otherwise was the sense of orders? He paused very often for a reply. The station in the warm, close air stank to heaven.
‘Well, that’s all right,’ said the New Zealander, ‘but when I was quite finished with my orders, it seems to me I’d have another shot at the rubbish about here. My word! Look at all that unemployed labour in the camp! ‘
There were not fewer than two thousand men under the dusty hills. Some of them were being drilled.
McManus went for a walk through the mimosa bushes to look at the late bridge. It had cost a hundred thousand pounds, and somebody would have to account for the breakage. That, indirectly, was McManus’s department.
‘Have you seen McManus?’ cried a private of the Railway Pioneer Corps, as he rode up to the Colonial Captain sitting in the window of what had been Folly Bridge refreshment-room. ‘I’ve seen him. He looks as if he’d just come out of Adderley Street.’
‘Did you speak to him?’
‘No, but I wanted to ask him who he expects is going to pay for the bridge.’
‘You will — on the Rand — after the war,’ the Captain drawled.
‘That’s what I supposed, but I wish to goodness McManus could work out some scheme of compensation that ‘ud hit the Transvaal hard.’
‘So do I — but the war expenses will have to be paid by the Rand just the same.’
‘That’s rather hard on us — working as volunteers to mend what the Boers have broken, and then to have the bill sent in to us at the end. McManus lent me two thousand once on stands I had in Johannesburg. I paid him before the war. Wish I hadn’t now. Well, I must go on. S’long.’
At four in the afternoon, a train was made up at Folly Bridge. Into this marched the passengers and their baggage, and at that hour appeared the R.S.O. to satisfy himself that all passes were in order and to issue a ukase.
‘You will be turned back at the other side of the river by the R.S.O. there if your passes are not countersigned by the Station Commandant here,’ he said, smiling.
‘The deuce! When was that order issued?’ the Colonial Captain demanded.
‘It isn’t my fault. I’ve only got my orders, and —’ ‘Yes, yes, we know all that, but where is the Station Commandant?’
‘I don’t know. He was about here this morning, but he left after lunch.’
‘No, you wouldn’t,’ reflectively from a corner of the carriage.
‘Well, I hope you’ll get across all right, but I tell you now that unless your passes are countersigned by Smith, Station Commandant, you won’t be able to get across even if you were Kitchener himself.’
‘I’d give a month — I’d give three months’ pay to have K. on this platform now — and we’d see,’ said the officer with the Little Man’s letters.
‘I’m only giving you my orders —’
‘And you don’t know where Smith is?’
‘And you expect us to hunt him all around the camp, do you? We’ve been seventeen—twenty-two—hours on this blasted onion-heap, and you and Smith between you have only just discovered —’
‘Well, it isn’t my fault, I’m only —’
‘You ought to keep Smith on the premises then.’
‘That has nothing to do with me. I should recommend you to go out and look for him.’
‘Oh, I’ve no interest in the matter. I’m only going up with the Little Man’s private mail. Here’s the bag. I don’t care. If I’m stopped on the other side, it’s your look-out. I’m sure the Little Man would be quite pleased.’
‘Oh, there’s McManus,’ said the Colonial Captain, looking out of the window. ‘I suppose he’s hunting Smith. D’you think they’ll stop McManus if his pass isn’t countersigned by Smith?’
‘Who’s McManus?’ A giggle of deep delight interrupted the R.S.O. ‘Oh, that civilian! ‘Pon my word, you’d think Bloemfontein was Piccadilly. They’re all wanting to go up there.’
‘Thank you,’ said the Colonial. ‘I’m afraid we’ll have to be turned back on the other side. Perhaps if we say we couldn’t find Smith they’ll forgive us.’
‘Well, I’m only giving you my word —’
The train rolled out nearly half a mile and halted in a deep cutting. The passengers stepped out over-ankles into the sand that slid under their feet, and their baggage followed them. A gaggle of Kaffirs marched away with bags and bedding-rolls, and the company followed depressedly. They expected to be met on the other side by a train from the North, which in God’s good time would go back to Bloemfontein.
‘But—but what do they want to stop in the middle of a cutting for?’ said the New Zealander. ‘I wouldn’t have minded walking a hundred yards on the level back there. They might have made a decent platform. I believe I’ve twisted my ankle climbing up the bank.’
‘Oh, this isn’t a patch to what it is on t’other side,’ said an officer on the bridge works. And they walked and they walked till they reached the pontoon, a hundred feet below. McManus’s face seemed a little set as it were — set, but in no wise greatly troubled.
‘Did McManus find Smith?’ said the Colonial, as they climbed the desperate north bank down which buck-wagons were sliding in billows of dust. Here again fifty men’s labour for two days would have greatly smoothed the road.
‘He said he didn’t,’ his companion replied.
‘Glory!’ said the Colonial, and, hopping over a boulder, fell into a bush. A hundred feet of river-bank through deep sand at the end of a mile walk is not easy to cover ; and it was a dewy-browed detachment that broke through the scrub and landed, panting, among the rocks at the gangers’ hut on the north side of the bridge. But the R.S.O. who received them there was cool and utterly calm. He wished to know whether their passes were in order, and a delicious awe fell on the company.
McManus climbed the slope into the Orange Free State easily and dispassionately, his lower jaw protruding, perhaps, one-sixteenth of an inch beyond its normal clinch. The travellers made a little semicircle about the R.S.O.—the R.S.O. of the North Bank of Folly Bridge- about him and about McManus, of the Corporate Equatorial Bank. It was heavenly weather. There was no accommodation of any sort of description, for the gangers’ hut was occupied by military telegraphers.
‘May I trouble you for your pass, please?’
McManus produced it clumsily. He was more accustomed to demand than to supply documents of identification.
‘Yes — yes — this seems all right’— the company winked as with one eyelid —’ but I don’t see that it has been countersigned by Smith.’
‘Captain Smith was in his bath, when I went to him at Folly Bridge at three forty-five. He sent a verbal message that it would be all right — so far as I understood through the door at the time.’
‘I am afraid I can’t help that.’ The R.S.O. paused uneasily. McManus in grey tweeds, black bowler, and immaculate white collar, gave him not the slightest help.
‘This pass is no good.’ The sentence came out in a rush.
‘Indeed?’ There was a meekness about McManus and a silence on the little knot of bystanders that would have warned any other than an imported Imperial alien that that kopje was occupied in force.
‘No. You’ll have to go back across the river to get Smith’s signature. I can’t let you up on that pass.’ This very cheerfully.
Whole hierarchies had signed it. Lions and unicorns ramped on the top of it. It appealed, as has been said, to earth, fire, and water — to horseflesh, steam, and steel, and all in command thereof, to forward with speed and courtesy R. L. McManus to Bloemfontein; but it lacked the signature of Smith — that Smith who was then towelling himself two miles away.
‘I must go back?’ McManus’s clear eye travelled down the rocky slope behind him to the far pontoon and the further south bank, where a few soldiery, pink as prawns, and at that distance not much larger, were bathing; climbed the wooded bank beyond, and rested with disfavour on the domino-small houses of Folly Bridge.
‘Yes—go back, of course, and get Smith to sign it.’
A lesser man would have said: ‘I’ll see you damned first,’ but McManus was in no sense small. His face did not even flush. He turned away slowly, as though the matter had no further interest, and the R.S.O. dealt with the other passes. To be precise, not one carried the magic signature of Smith. The officer in charge of the Little Man’s private mail almost implored the R.S.O. to stop him for twenty-four hours because he wished to learn whether there was any truth in the current Army legend that under no circumstances would the Little Man swear. The officer in charge of the Staff’s mail followed suit. He had two bags of official correspondence for the Staff, and there were Generals among them who could swear. He, too, prayed to be turned back. The officer with the new maps for the Intelligence Department joined in his entreaties.
‘After all,’ said one cheerily, as they sat down on their bedding- rolls in the gathering dusk, ‘what does it matter, old man? You’re bound to be Stellenbosched in three days.’
Now Stellenbosch is not a name to use lightly, for there go the men who have not done quite so well; and the R.S.O.’s face clouded as he asked for an explanation.
‘Haven’t you stopped McManus?’ said an officer, who knew his man.
‘Oh, I’m sorry — never mind — you’ll find out before Tuesday.’
‘The only person I’ve stopped was that civilian who hadn’t had his pass signed by Smith. I can’t accept a verbal message across the Orange River.’
‘Quite right. You’ll be getting all your message on the wire from Bloemfontein in a little while. I wouldn’t be in your shoes for a trifle.’
‘I don’t think McManus minds much, though,’ the Colonial Captain struck in soothingly. ‘I spoke to him just now. He says he is going on.’
‘I’ll take dashed good care he doesn’t,’ said the R.S.O., exploding. This was something he could understand.
‘Yes — he’s going on in the train when she comes in — so you’ll have another chance, you see. If you stop him, I suppose he will go back to Cape Town, and he’ll tell the Little Man why. He’s rather busy, and he won’t be able to come up again.’
‘But — confound it all — does he expect the whole blessed Orange Free State to wait on his business?’
‘It would be a bad job if it didn’t — just now. He’s the head of the Corporate Equatorial Banking Corporation, and he has been called up to Bloemfontein rather urgently to put the finances of the place straight. He isn’t going up to start a hotel there, you know.’
Somebody lit a pipe; and in the hush you could hear the great river running through the dry hills. A far-away voice on the construction- engine backed close up to the bridge called to someone under a staging.
‘McManus going up to Bloemfontein to-night?’
‘That means business — thank God.’
‘Why?’Cause they don’t care one scarlet weir for the whole Army — the Boers don’t. They reckon they can get them withdrawn if they win the game in London, but reopenin’ the Bank at Bloemfontein means business. That’s why. It teaches the Dutch more than twenty battles. Wonder they don’t try to cut the line and nab him to-night.’
The silence by the gangers’ hut continued unbroken for twenty puffs.
‘And he did wait outside Smith’s door, while Smith was washing — because I saw him. I wouldn’t have done it,’ said an Imperial Officer slowly,’ but I suppose he wished to see what sort of fools we can be when we go in for war.’
‘And you’ve told him to walk two miles back and two miles here again,’ said the New Zealander, ‘to get Smith’s signature.’
‘And there’s no guarantee Smith won’t be having a hair-cut and shampoo when he reaches there,’ the Colonial Captain added. We knew in Cape Town a week ago that McManus had been called up. But, of course, if he hasn’t got Smith’s signature, that settles it.’
‘What does it matter? Let the brute frolic round the kopjes till Smith’s dry. He’s only the boss of the biggest Bank in the country. Who cares how much they want him at Bloemfontein ? I’d put a guard on him, and march him back in irons, by Jove,’ said a Cavalry Officer. ‘I say, old man, didn’t it ever occur to you to knock off some of the points of these rocks that we’re supposed to sit on? They’re infernally nubbly.’
One by one the stars came out over the hills, and the flare-lamps of the never-sleeping Pioneer Corps puffed and blazed afresh in the river-bed.
Last of all came the train from the North, and when McManus and his Secretary went up to their labelled compartments reserved for them at Bloemfontein, the R.S.O. took no notice.
No more, for that matter, did McManus.