by Deneys Reitz
We lived in the Orange Free State.
My father was Chief Justice in Sir John Brand’s time and subsequently, in 1887, was himself elected President of the Republic.
Our home was at Bloemfontein, the State capital, and here my brothers and I grew up. There were five of us, two older and two younger than myself, and we led a pleasant, Tom-Sawyerlike existence such as falls to the lot of few boys nowadays. We learned to ride, shoot and swim almost as soon as we could walk, and there was a string of hardy Basuto ponies in the stables, on which we were often away for weeks at a time, riding over the game-covered plains by day, and sleeping under the stars at night, hunting, fishing and camping to our heart’s content, and clattering home again when we had had our fill.
Sometimes my father took us with him on his long tours into the remoter districts, where there was more hunting and more camping, and great wapenshaws, held by the Boer commandos to do him honour.
Our small country was a model one. There were no political parties, nor, until after the Jameson Raid of 1895, was there any bad blood between the Dutch and the English. We had no railways, and the noise of the outside world reached us but faintly, so that in our quiet way we were a contented community, isolated hundreds of miles from the seaboard.
In 1894, when I was twelve years old, we were taken to Europe. It was a wonderful experience for inland-bred boys to journey to the Coast, to cross the ocean in a ship, and to see the great crowds and cities of the old world. We went first of all to England, where we stayed for a while in London, marvelling at the things we saw. Thence to Amsterdam to visit the senior branch of our family, that had remained in Holland when our ancestors emigrated to South Africa long ago. The head of the old stock lived in a house on the Heerengracht – a wealthy man apparently, for he kept many servants and had fine paintings on his walls.
As our republic had taken its name from the House of Orange, my father was well received by the little Queen of the Netherlands, and the court and people made much of us. Next, we travelled to Paris to meet Casimir-Périer, the newly elected President of the French. He took us to lay a wreath on the grave of Sadi Carnot, his predecessor, lately assassinated by an anarchist at Lyons. From there we went to Brussels to see Monsieur Jesslein, our Consul. His house stood in the rue de la Blanchisserie, and he told us it was the one in which the Duchess of Richmond had given her famous ball on the eve of Waterloo. We were presented to King Leopold, an old man with a hooked nose and a long white beard, who extended only his little finger in greeting, perhaps because we belonged to a republic.
From Belgium we went to Hamburg to take ship across the North Sea to Edinburgh, and from there to visit the Cathcarts at Auchindrayne on the River Doon. My father had studied law in Scotland and my grandfather before him had studied agriculture, and they had both spent much time at Auchindrayne, so that my father wished his sons in turn to carry on the tradition of friendship which for nearly a hundred years had linked the two families.
My grandfather first went to Scotland in 1816. He met Sir Walter Scott, to whom he took a lion skin which the poet Thomas Pringle had sent from Cape Town, and he became intimate with the great writer. In later days in South Africa, he loved to tell of their meetings and of the banquet at which he was present when Scott for the first time admitted that he was the author of the Waverley Novels. Both my grandfather and my father had returned to South Africa with a deep love of Scotland and Scotch literature, and at our home scarcely a night passed without a reading from Burns or Scott, so that we felt as if we were among our own people.
From Auchindrayne we went to London to meet Sir George Grey, who, as Governor of the Cape, had been a friend of my father many years before. My father used to say that if the English had sent more men like him to South Africa our history would have been a happier one, and although I was only a boy, and Sir George Grey a very old man, he made a deep impression on me – a something of inward beauty not easily described, but which I have not yet forgotten.
From London we sailed for South Africa.
On our return my brothers and I were received by our less fortunate playfellows like pilgrims safely returned from Mecca, so hazardous an undertaking did our journey seem to them in those days.
We took up our old carefree life once more, all unaware of the storm that was brewing between the white races in the Transvaal.