I was early on Observation Hill, watching that strip of plain to the south-west. No shells were bursting on it to-day, and the sound of guns was not so frequent. Our heliograph flashed from the far-off Zwartz Kop, and high above it, looking hardly bigger than a vulture against the pale blue of the Drakensberg precipices, rose Buller’s balloon, showing just a point of lustre on its skin.
The view from Observation Hill is far the finest, but the whiz of bullets over the rocks scarcely ever stops, and now and again a shell comes screaming into the rank grass at one’s feet.
To-day we enjoyed a further variety, well worth the risk. At the foot of Surprise Hill, hardly 1,500 yards from our position, the Boers have placed a mortar. Now and then it throws a huge column of smoke straight up into the air. The first I thought was a dynamite explosion, but after a few seconds I heard a growing whisper high above my head, as though a falling star had lost its way, and plump came a great shell into the grass, making a 3ft. hole in the reddish earth, and bursting with no end of a bang. We collected nearly all the bits and fitted them together. It was an eight or nine-inch globe, reminding one of those “bomb-shells” which heroes of old used to catch up in their hands and plunge into water-buckets. The most amusing part of it was the fuse—a thick plug of wood running through the shell and pierced with the flash-channel down its centre. It was burnt to charcoal, but we could still make out the holes bored in its side at intervals to convert it into a time-fuse. This is the “one mortar” catalogued in our Intelligence book. It was satisfactory to have located it. Two guns of the 69th Battery threw shrapnel over its head all morning; then the Naval guns had a turn and seem to have reduced it to silence.
In the afternoon there was an auction of Steevens’s horses and camp equipment. Many officers came, and the usual knot of greedy civilians on the look-out for a bargain. As auctioneer I had great satisfaction in running the prices up beyond their calculation. But in another way they got the best of the old country to-day. Colonel Stoneman, having discovered a hidden store of sugar, was selling it at the fair price of 4d. a pound to any one who pledged his word he was sick and in need of it. Round clustered the innocent local dealers with sick and sorry looks, swearing by any god they could remember that sugar alone would save their lives, paid their fourpences, and then sold the stuff for 2s. outside the door.
January 20, 1900.
Again I was on Observation Hill two or three times in the day. It is impossible to keep away from it long. The rumble of the British guns was loud but intermittent, but the Boer camps remain where they were. With us the bombardment continued pretty steadily. After a silence of two days “Puffing Billy,” of Bulwan, threw one shell into the town and six among the Devons. His usual answer to