Read CHAPTER X - A LITTLE ADVENTURE WITH THE BRITISH SOLDIER of The Petticoat Commando Boer Women in Secret Service , free online book, by Johanna Brandt, on ReadCentral.com.

The exquisite summer of 1901 was drawing to a close.

January and February had been months of unsurpassed splendour and riotous luxury in fruit and flowers, each day being more gorgeous than the last. The glorious sunsets, the mysterious and exquisitely peaceful moonlight nights were a never-ending source of joy to our young writer, thrilling her being with emotions not to be described.

Each morning at 5 o’clock, while the rest of the idiotic world lay asleep within its cramped boundary of brick and stone, Hansie revelled in the beauties of Nature, abandoning herself to at least one hour of perfect bliss before the toil and trouble of another day could occupy her mind.

The garden being so situated that its most secluded spots were far removed from any sights and sounds which could remind one of the war, Hansie had no difficulty in turning her thoughts into more uplifting channels during the peaceful morning hour, spent, when the weather permitted, in her favourite corner under the six gigantic willows below the orange avenue.

And the weather in those days nearly always permitted!

Most of the entries in her diary she made in this fair spot, alone, but for the sympathetic presence of her big black dog. The morning solitude was amply atoned for by the dozens of young friends who joined the “fruit parties” every afternoon, filling the air with their gay voices and wholesome, happy laughter.

Four or five young men and a bevy of beautiful young girls were amongst the most constant visitors at Harmony. The girls, often referred to in Hansie’s diary as the “Four Graces,” were certainly the most exquisite specimens of budding womanhood in Pretoria.

There was Consuelo, tall and slender, our languid “Spanish beauty,” with her rich brown hair and slumbrous dark-brown eyes; there was our little Marguerite, fresh and fair as the flower after which she was named, an opening marguerite in the dewy daintiness of life’s first summer morning; there was Annie, spoilt and wilful but undoubtedly the fairest of them all; and then there was her sister Sara, Hansie’s favourite, with a girlish charm impossible to describe. Her creamy white complexion, her lovely soft brown eyes, her winning smile and tender voice what could be more delightful than to sit and watch her as she moved and spoke with rare, unconscious grace, clad in a snowy dress of fine white muslin!

One sweet summer morn, a Sabbath, if I remember correctly, when the air was filled with the fragrance of innumerable buds and blossoms, Hansie sat in the accustomed spot, with her diary on her lap. She was not writing then, but, with a slip of paper in her hands and a gleam of mischief in her eyes, she was repeating with evident enjoyment a few catching lines.

“Oh, Carlo, this is lovely! I must learn these verses and recite them to the girls when they come this afternoon! Listen, Carlo.”

FROM KITCHENER TO SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR

Sunday

I am taking measures once for all to clear my reputation;
I swear to give de Wet a fall that means annihilation.

Monday

A brilliant action by Brabant, the enemy has fled,
Their loss was something dreadful; ours one single Kaffir dead.

Tuesday

De Wet is short of food-stuffs, his ammunition’s done,
His horses are all dying, and he’s only got one gun.

Wednesday

The cordon draws in round de Wet; he now has little room,
He only can escape one way by road to Potchefstroom.

Thursday

De Wet is now caged like a rat, he’s fairly in a box,
Around him grouped are Clements, Clery, Methuen, French, and Knox.

Friday

An unfortunate event occurred I report it with regret,
A convoy with five hundred men was captured by de Wet.

Saturday

A Kaffir runner says he saw de Wet’s men trekking west,
With ammunition for two years, and food supply the best.

Saturday (later)

A loyal farmer told our Scouts de Wet was riding east,
Each man, beside the horse he rode, was leading a spare beast.

Carlo wagged his tail sympathetically.

Overhead the sky was of the deepest, richest sapphire blue, paling away to the horizon to the most delicate tints, against which the distant hills showed up in bold relief.

“Gentleman Jim,” one of the native servants, was evidently enjoying his Sunday too, for he loitered in the garden, plucking up a weed here and there and watching the bees at work, the busy bees who know of no day of rest.

“Bring me some grapes, please, Jim,” Hansie called out to him.

“Yes, little missie,” with alacrity. “What you like? Them black ones or them white ones?”

“Some of both.”

He walked briskly to the house to fetch a basket and disappeared into the vineyard, returning shortly with a plentiful supply of luscious grapes.

“Thank you, Jim. Enough for a week!” Hansie laughed, and he looked pleased as he went off in the direction of the river.

A few moments later, half concealed by the shrubs and rank grass with which the lower part of Harmony was overrun, Hansie noticed two stooping figures in khaki, moving forward cautiously and then making sudden dashes at some object, invisible to the girl. She watched them intently, wondering who the intruders were and what their game could be, until they came so near that she was able to distinguish what it was they nourished in their hands. Butterfly nets!

A pair of harmless Tommies, spending their Sunday morning in catching butterflies and the other insects of which there abounded so large a variety at that time of the year.

They did not catch sight of the girl until Carlo sprang up barking furiously, and then they started back in consternation and surprise.

“Lie down, Carlo,” Hansie commanded sharply. “Good morning,” to the men.

“Good morning, miss,” respectfully; “I hope we are not intrudin’.”

“Certainly not. Are you catching butterflies? Show me what you have got.”

The men produced their spoil with pride.

“Will you have some grapes?” Hansie asked, handing the basket to one of them, who helped himself gratefully and then passed it on to his comrade. The latter, evidently not of a very sociable disposition, took a bunch and walked off in pursuit of more butterflies.

The first soldier, however, squatted down on the ground at some little distance from the girl and began to talk, as he ate the grapes with great relish. At this point Carlo raised himself with the utmost deliberation, yawned, stretched himself, and sauntering (I cannot call it anything except sauntering) slowly towards his mistress, laid his full length on the ground between her and the Tommy. Then he went sound asleep to all appearances, but his mistress observed that when the soldier made the slightest movement, the dog’s ears twitched or an eyelid quivered.

Slowly eating his grapes, the man glanced curiously at the book on Hansie’s lap.

“Are you sketchin’, miss?” he asked.

“No; writing.”

“Poetry?”

There was no answer.

“I am one of Lord Kitchener’s body-guard,” he went on presently. “We are encamped near Berea Park on the other side of your fence. We were in Middelburg last week and I saw one of the Boer Generals, General Botha.”

Hansie’s heart bounded. She looked at the man incredulously.

“Indeed! How was that possible?”

“Quite simple, miss. Lord Kitchener invited the General into town to have an interview with him. His brother I think his name is Christian came with him. I acted as their orderly.”

“Tell me more, tell me everything,” the girl’s voice shook with ill-controlled emotion.

“There were five or six other men with them. They arrived at about nine in the morning and stayed until half-past four that afternoon. They had lunch with Lord Kitchener. A fine man the General is, well set up, big and broad-shouldered.”

“Yes, I know.” Hansie could not withhold those words.

“You know!” he exclaimed in great surprise. “Do you know General Botha?”

“Yes, indeed. And what is more, he is my General.”

The soldier looked at her in ludicrous amazement.

“Are you a Boer? You don’t look like one, and I never heard any one speak better English.”

“I don’t know whether what you are saying is meant as a compliment to me, but I don’t like being told that I don’t look like a Boer, and I certainly would not be pleased if you took me for an Englishwoman.”

The poor Tommy looked troubled and muttered something about “no offence meant, I am sure.”

“Now please go on and tell me more about the General. Did you hear anything of what he said to Lord Kitchener?”

“Nothing, miss, except when he went away. They shook hands very hearty-like and the General said, ’Good-bye; I hope you will have good luck.’ That was all.”

“Good luck! What do you think he could have meant?”

“We don’t know, miss, but we think he meant good luck in Natal, for Lord Kitchener went yesterday and I hear there is some talk of peace.”

Hansie sat silent for a long time, turning these things over in her mind.

“But what is all this accursed war about, miss? We soldiers know nothing except that we have to fight when we are ordered to do so.”

“Of course you know nothing. An English soldier is nothing but a fighting machine, not allowed to think or act for himself. Discipline is a grand thing, but Heaven protect a man from the discipline of the British army. The war? I will tell you if you want to know. The war is a cruel and unjust attempt to rob us of our rich and independent land, and England is the tool in base and unscrupulous hands. You suffer too, I know, and all my heart goes out in sympathy to the bereaved and broken-hearted Englishwomen across the seas. Their only comfort is their firm belief that their heroes died a noble death for freedom and justice. Did they but know the truth! They died to satisfy the lust for gain and greed of gold of mining magnates on the Rand.”

“Suffer, miss! As long as I live I will not forget that march from the colony, through Bloemfontein to Pretoria. Fighting nearly every day and marching at least thirty miles a day, on one biscuit. There was no water to be had! Will you believe that for three days not a drop of water passed my lips? And I heard the other fellows say, not once, but a thousand times, ‘Would to God that a bullet find me before night!’ Our tongues were hanging from our mouths and our lips were cracked ”

“Stop!” Hansie cried, putting her hands to her ears. “I do not want to hear another word. These things cannot be helped, and your officers suffered too!”

“The officers! When at last the water-carts came, we had to stand aside and watch while bucketsful were being carried into the tents for their baths!”

There was silence again.

“If I were an English soldier, I would run away,” Hansie said.

“I’ve had enough, God knows, and when I get home I mean to leave the Army and take up my old work carpentering. The war can’t last very long. England is mighty but I wish the bloomin’ capitalists would come and do the fighting, if they want this country and its gold-mines.”

“There are only a ‘few marauding bands’ left, so the English say,” Hansie answered bitterly. “But remember what I tell you now. South Africa will be soaked in blood and tears, and a hundred thousand hearts will be broken here and in your country, before the mighty British Army has subdued those ‘few marauding bands.’”

The soldier’s face grew troubled once again.

It was a good, strong face a patient face and it bore the marks of much suffering, endured in silence and alone.

He rose and took off his cap.

“You’ve been very good to me, miss. I wish I could be of some use to you.”

“Run away from Lord Kitchener!” she said, laughing. “I would be very sorry indeed if you fell by the hand of one of my brothers.”

He looked at her sympathetically.

“How many brothers have you in the field?”

“God only knows,” she answered sadly. “There were two left when last we heard of them. The third has been made a prisoner.”

The soldier took his leave and Hansie lost herself in reverie.

And when at last she roused herself, she wrote with rapid pen:

“Two Tommies have been in our garden, catching butterflies ” We know the rest.

That afternoon about ten or twelve young people assembled in the garden and were later joined by several members of the Diplomatic Corps Consul Cinatti, Consul Aubert, and Consul Nieuwenhuis, the most frequent visitors at Harmony.

The topic of conversation was connected with General Botha’s visit to Lord Kitchener in Middelburg, and when Hansie told her friends what she had heard from the soldier that morning, they expressed their conviction that every word he said must have been true.

And the latest official war news, in rhyme, the dispatch from Kitchener to the Secretary of State for War, came in for its share of attention, occasioning no small amount of merriment.

Oh, happy afternoon! Oh, memories sweet! Oh, long departed days of good fellowship and mutual understanding! Bright spots of gold and crimson in our sky of lead!

Mrs. van Warmelo never at any time encouraged evening visitors. They were all early risers at Harmony and their life could not be adapted to the artificial, the unnatural strain of modern civilisation.

So the quiet evenings were spent by the mother in reading and writing, while the daughter gave herself up to the indulgence of her one great passion, music. Scales and exercises, Schubert and Chopin, and invariably at the end before retiring for the night Beethoven, the Master, the King of Music.