The year is 1899, and the South African town of Ladysmith is surrounded by Boer forces. For four long months bread is thickened with laundry starch and soldier’s horses are killed for meat; daily bombings destroy homes and businesses, forcing the town’s inhabitants into tunnels and makeshift shelters; and soldiers and townspeople alike are hideously wounded by flying shrapnel. As the world she knows collapses around her, Bella Kiernan finds the courage to escape from convention, to rebel against the political forces that threaten her homeland and to pursue her life’s greatest romance. Ladysmith is a magnificent love story, a vivid portrait of war, and clear confirmation of Giles Foden’s standing as a formidably talented novelist.
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These items for sale also, the notice in the window said. To wit: three mother-of-pearl looking-glasses, four scissors, three large and two small combs, ten vials of perfume and an equal number of bottles of hair oil, all laid out in a neat, symmetrical pattern. The young woman in the straw hat regarded the scissors charily, as if they might put her hair in danger; then, seeming to make up her mind, opened the door and went in.
High above Bella Kiernan, as she stepped into the barber's shop, four horsemen were coming down the road from Helpmakaar, cantering between the heavy shadow of Bulwan and the smaller shade of Umbrella Hill. As Bella greeted the barber, they reined in their horses, and came to a halt.
"Here will do well enough," said Steevens to the others.
For all concerned, it was a matter of perspective: in front of Bella was a row of well-cushioned leather chairs, each set before a mirror; below the horsemen lay the town of Ladysmith, as seen from a particular point of view and distance. She sat down; they surveyed the town, sitting in its dusty amphitheatre of ridges and kopjes--surveyed it, and said to each other, yes, we can easily make a stand here. One produced his brass spyglass and took a closer look.
"Solid as the Bank of England," MacDonald muttered. The others agreed, and the spyglass was closed up with a snap.
The horsemen were wrong: sure as the crowned eagle stooping above them would catch its prey that day, they were wrong to a man. A proper soldier would have deemed it a tight place to defend, the rocky spurs and flat-topped hillocks being so disconnected and irregular, so mutually overlooking, that each vantage point was disadvantaged by another.
They kicked their mounts on, splashed through a spruit, and cantered on down towards the town. A little nearer, aching after their long tour, they paused on Pound Plateau. A spyglass again, Nevinson's this time; out of the quiver-like brown leather case it came, to be extended and trained upon Ladysmith, in the late afternoon.
It always amazed Nevinson what a panorama the glass's sovereign-sized portion of light could reveal--the serried roofs of the tin town, the garrison the English called the Aldershot of Africa, the tented camp on the barren plain two miles out of town, the racecourse in an oxbow of the Klip River, the V where the zigzag narrow-gauge line from Natal divided (one line to the Transvaal, one to the Free State), the convent, the desultory scattering of thorn trees beyond the cricket pitch and golf links, the rows of wooden-fronted houses with little squares of orchard or vegetables, and the wide main street with its stores, hotel and all-round saloon-bar feel.
Five miles to the north was the haystack-shaped Pepworth Hill, and high above that, above all of it--the whole shooting match, as it were, or would be--towered the precipitous Drakensberg, along which ran the barbed-wire fence dividing British Natal from the two Boer republics. Maybe, Boers or no Boers, the horsemen would have been better up there among those cool blue peaks, needful of a still further uplifted vision of Ladysmith: such a parched, ordinary place it was, after all; one unaccustomed to the kind of attention they were giving it.
They rode on down and came, in their turn, under scrutiny. Their observer, Antonio Torres, had a rich yet opportunistic imagination, seeing, in one moment, the Apocalypse in those riders and, in the other, four more heads to cut. He watched them ride slowly past the window, and tried to remember how it was in the legend. Pestilence, famine, war and death, was that it? Death seemed a little superfluous in that company, he reckoned, though in fact these four seemed altogether well enough in themselves, as their horses plodded up Ladysmith's main street, passing, Torres noted, Mrs. Frinton on her bicycle. One--whom he recognized, having cut his hair earlier in the day--was in civilian clothes. The others were in military uniform and would easily have passed for soldiers.
"Many correspondents about now," he said, lifting up a dark fringe between his fingers to get a line on it and then, with a deft movement, snipping it shorter. The fine hair fell on the bridge of Bella's nose and he moved to brush it off. But . . . she had already begun to sneeze, and he stood back a second, watching her head come back, and then forward, onto her dress.
"Excuse me," exclaimed the young woman, looking up at the man her father called "Don" Antonio, and seeing him touch his long, tanned face. It was, she thought, not unhandsome; rather mysterious, with eyes that sparkled in such a way as to suggest that there was more about him than his mild manner allowed. He had a devil's-fork beard, too, which served to increase his air of intrigue.
It was true that nobody in Ladysmith knew much about Mr. Torres, who had come from Portuguese East Africa and set up his shop only recently. Bella had decided she rather liked him: with his elegant dark suits and soft white shirts he had a sense of style about his person which few men in Ladysmith could match. But he wasn't suitable for her, of course: too old (ten, perhaps fifteen years her senior), not to mention his Portuguese blood. What would Mrs. Frinton think of that?
Thinking she might laugh, she in fact sneezed again, and apologized to the barber once more, looking up into his black eyes as they regarded her in the mirror.
"Do not be foolish, Miss Kiernan. It is my fault for certain. Or the dust. Yes, this terrible dust. Ever since I came here, I have not grown accustomed to this dust. And so much more now, since the number of soldiers grew larger. Let us pray there will not be war. I do not think there will be much hair cutting if everybody is fighting."
"Father says it might come to a siege," said Bella.
"Well, let us hope that it does not," Torres replied. "But you saw the natives on their way, and when they are on the move it's a sure sign that something is happening."
Bella had seen them, on the train as it passed through from Newcastle to Maritzburg: black faces behind the bars of the cargo vans, crying out for bread and meat--the Xhosa boy clicking in his strange language, clicking like Mr. Torres's scissors on her head, the Zulu in his animal-skin kaross, face downcast with loss of pride. Not that there weren't white faces, too, on that train: smart men in hats, rough-looking miners and boilermen from Cornwall and Lancashire, whole families with tin trunks and servants, all packed in coal trucks or cattle trucks, travelling three days and nights under African skies down to Cape Town. These were the Uitlanders: uit meant "out" in the Taal, and the Boers were, in effect, kicking them out of the republics.
"Like the Great Trek in reverse," said Bella, repeating a remark of her father's.
"Only this time it is the British and the blacks," said the barber. "Well, at least the Boers are in a majority in their country now. It is what they have always desired."
It was in part this, the fact that the booming, mainly British population in the mining towns of the Boer republics didn't have the vote, that had set the machinery of aggression in motion.
";I think it must indeed be our fault then," Bella said. "To some degree, anyway. All the Boers I have spoken to--well, I haven't actually spoken to that many--say they are afraid that Britain will take their land away, as they did with Cape Colony. That's what caused the original Great Trek up to their republics, isn't it, Mr. Torres?"
He moved her head with the fingertips of both hands, straightening her up.
"Yes, and if the British hadn't threatened the Boers, brought so many soldiers here, all this talk of war might not be around. And all these refugees. If only they wanted haircuts as well as food."
Bella laughed at the thought of so many people stopping off at Ladysmith to get their hair cut. Then she sat up straighter still in Torres's chair. It wasn't a laughing matter, the food crisis. The demand for bread at the station had forced the price up generally; it was now a shilling a loaf and, as her father had said, "Old Star is coining it." Mr. and Mrs. Star, Ladysmith's bakers--Bella could see their shop across the road from where she sat in the comfortable leather chair--were generally thought greedy by the populace. As she told Torres what her father thought of the Stars' behaviour--"criminal" had been one of the words he used--a slight frown passed across the barber's face. Bella wondered if she had been a little too confiding.
Torres looked back at her in the glass, at her face, at her neck, at the cream-coloured, light cotton frock below. With its brown eyes, thin lips and slightly angled cheekbones, it was quite a pale, austere face that regarded him from above the jars of hair oil and the india-rubber bulbs of the perfume sprays. And becoming all the more so as, inch by inch, layer by layer, he cut off more hair, for with every lock that fell the young woman's face seemed graver and more serious in its contours.
Perhaps it was just that it saddened him, this particular haircut. The truth was, the dark tresses of Bella Kiernan reminded him of those of another Bella, or more properly Isabella, whom he had left behind him in Louren?o Marques. She had married another, the family choice, and he had left the city of his birth, left his parents' rich estates, left everything, rather than have to see her every day on the arm of another man--left with sadness in his heart, and wandered, and ended up here, among the British. He had learned to cut hair on the way, from a Lithuanian Jew at Komati Poort.
Antonio, you are dreaming again, he said to himself, remembering the time he had nipped Mrs. Frinton's ear with the scissors . . . and forced himself to concentrate on the overwhelming question of Bella Kiernan's haircut.
Because they are questions--he pruned off another tress--haircuts are questions, their outcome indeterminable and weighty. Definitely weighty, in the instance of Bella Kiernan; but it was what she had wanted, however he had tried to counsel her otherwise. How strange it was, he thought, the way that women will suddenly take drastic measures with their hair; as if, by some new coiffure, they might achieve a particular object or, in a mysterious scheme that went beyond the bounds of earth itself, change their soul utterly. He looked in the mirror again.
Bella realized that Mr. Torres hadn't said anything for a while. She wondered what he had been thinking about. He wasn't the gossiping type usually associated with his trade, but she liked to hear what he did have to say. His Latin dignity and style, combined with occasional flights of fancy, marked him out from the brash, pioneering bravado of most of the Ladysmith men.
"I don't think the Stars are the only ones growing rich from the misfortunes of others," she announced. "I think the gold people and the diamond people in the Cape want to get their hands on the Boer fields. Father says that Sir Alfred Milner, the Cape Governor, is in cahoots with them, to get money for the Empire, and that's why he's so keen on war."
"What do you think will happen?"
"I don't know. There are certainly lots of rumours about. The town is full of wild fantasies. Mr. Greenacre's son was in here yesterday and he said he saw nearly a thousand Boers watering their horses."
There was silence--except for the clicking scissors--as the two of them thought about this; although, as Bella remarked to herself, Bobby Greenacre was a notorious fibber.
As she sat there, a strange sound began to fill the silence. At first she thought it was just the scissors, but then she realized it came from outside. It slowly grew louder, the clip of horses' hooves and the jingle of harness, and then the low murmur of a large body of men in the distance. A bugle sounded, then fife and drum, and soon the main street was filled from end to end with tramping feet. Torres stopped cutting and both turned to watch as more troops came in from the railway station, after disembarking from the armoured train with horses and supplies. He and Bella had seen it several times before that week, the arrival of rank upon rank of these seasoned men in khaki, the best the British Army could muster, but each time it was a sight to behold. The sun had begun to go down and the cavalry lances cast long shadows on the ground. Behind them came scraggy mules and long-horned oxen pulling wagons in teams of ten, driven by African boys who handled their long, leather-tongued stock-whips with astonishing skill. Then came the infantry, rifles on their shoulders, puttees round their calves, expressions both grim and grinning on their faces.
"They look very strong, don't they?" said Bella. "Father says they have come from India and are very skilled from fighting the difficult tribes there."
"Pomp and circumstance, that is what you British say, isn't it?" Torres replied, with a chuckle. And then, correcting his levity: "But I hope they send many more, anyway. It is very frightening, all of this. My great-grandfather died in the Napoleon war, you know, that is why my father had to come to Africa. But I will tell you my story on your next haircut, Miss Kiernan, because"--he touched her on the shoulder--"this one is finished."
"It looks wonderful, Mr. Torres," said Bella, turning her head to inspect. "In fact, I'm so pleased I think I will buy one of those looking-glasses you have in the window, if I may."
"Of course," said the barber, smiling at her. "I will fetch you a new one from the store. I have some still in their box."
Once she had paid for the haircut and the new looking-glass, Bella said goodbye to Mr. Torres and left the salon. At the door, she paused, deciding whether or not to put her straw hat back on. In the end, she did, betraying a slight uncertainty as to her ability to carry off the new style. This nervousness was in no small part due to the large numbers of soldiers that filled the street outside.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As the cover of the book describes, this is a ¿meticulous re-creation¿ of the siege on Ladysmith during the Boer War. Therein lies both the plus and the minus of this book. Very detailed historic information is given, I learned a lot about the actual siege conditions and the political temperature of the day. So many details that, in fact, I felt like I was reading a non-fiction book. What was missing for me was the sense of story that captures both the mind and heart.The author weaves together many storylines to tell his story, we follow newspaper correspondents (which included Winston Churchill), soldiers, townspeople and natives. Even Mohandas Ghandi makes an appearance as a stretcher bearer. It was not until the second half of the book did the author finally give us a more intimate portrait of Ladysmith, through the eyes of a young woman, and although the story was interesting and vividly told, I never really felt caught up in it.If you are looking for an educational read about the Boer War, I would recommend Ladysmith, but if you are in the market for a historical story to sweep you away to another time and place, I would pass on this book.