Read CHAPTER XXV - THE SHOEMAKER AT WORK of The Petticoat Commando Boer Women in Secret Service , free online book, by Johanna Brandt, on

That the inborn sense of humour of the Dutch South African race should have been stunted in its growth, if not completely crushed, by the horrors of the war, would be small cause for surprise to most people who have given the matter a thought. But to those of us acquainted with the facts, an entirely different and wholly comprehensible aspect of the case has been made manifest.

The blessed gift of humour is only sharpened by the hard realities of life, can never be appreciated to the full in the calm and shallow waters of prosperity.

Of this we had innumerable proofs during those tempestuous days, and certain it is that the memory of a harmless joke, enjoyed under circumstances of unusual stress and trouble, grows sweeter and is strengthened as the years go by.

For dry humour and keen enjoyment of the ludicrous, our friend Mr. W. Botha could not easily be surpassed; and I advise you, good reader, if you have the chance, to induce him to tell you the following story in his own words, and to watch the flicker of amusement in his eye.

Four of Captain Naude’s spies are in town again, resting, shopping, and exchanging items of war experiences with their friends and relatives.

Countless parcels have arrived from various stores of note in town, and four big bags, full to bursting, are arrayed against the wall for transportation “to the front” at 7 o’clock that night.

But what is this? Another bag? Impossible! There are but four men going out and each one has his load, quite as much as he can carry already.

What does it contain? A beautiful brand-new saddle, the property of an English officer, which Willie Els, son of the Committee member, has determined shall on no account be left behind.

Expostulations from the older men are all in vain.

The saddle, with the four other bags, is put into Delport’s cab, which is waiting at the door, and, after many fond farewells, the young men drive off in the direction of the Pretoria Lunatic Asylum.

At this time there is no better spot for exit from the capital, but in order to reach it one point of extreme danger has to be passed the point at which a British officer, with five-and-twenty mounted men, is stationed, in command of a searchlight apparatus for scouring the surrounding country.

The dangerous spot has been frequently passed in safety by these very spies.

To-night they pass again in unobserved security, but alas! when they have crossed the railway line, immediately opposite the asylum, where they are in the habit of alighting with their parcels, they find to their distress that, try as they will, they cannot carry more than the four bags allotted to them in the first instance.

The bag containing the precious saddle must go back to town.

Oh, the pity of it!

The critical spot must be passed again, and, as ill-luck would have it, the British officer hails the passing cab and is about to get in, when his eye falls on the bag.

“What is this?” he asks the driver.

No concealment possible now!

“A saddle, sir.”

“A saddle! Whose, and where are you taking it?”

“From Mr. Botha to Mr. Els in town. On my way I was stopped and asked to take some passengers to the asylum, which I have just done. I was going to Mr. Botha when you stopped me.”

The officer looks doubtful, feels the bag all over and, taking a notebook from his pocket, enters all the details of this most suspicious-looking affair, the number of the cab, the name and address of the driver, the names and full addresses of the two men who have been mentioned.

Then he gets in and peremptorily orders the cabman to drive to such-and-such an hotel in the centre of the town.

With a throb of relief Delport deposits his fare at the hotel and, whipping up his horses, drives at the utmost speed to Mr. Els’ house, to warn him of the danger he is in.

Mr. and Mrs. Botha have just retired for the night, when they are aroused by a hurried knock at the front door. They admit two girls, one of them the daughter of Mrs. Els, the other a sister to Mrs. Naude, both extremely agitated.

Miss Els speaks first:

“Oom Willie, you must please come to our house at once. My father is very ill.”

Oom Willie’s heart sinks into his slippers.

This, the long-expected sign that their game is up, has come at last.

He hastens to the home of his friend.

When he learns the truth the case does not seem so hopeless after all and he feels his courage returning.

“We must think of some plan with which to meet the police when they come. Quick! There is not a moment to lose. They may be here at any minute.”

In an incredibly short time the officer’s new saddle is buried in a bag of coal, which is again sewn up and thrown into the back-yard, while an old and worthless saddle is produced, Heaven only knows from where, cut up into pieces and placed in a large basin of water on the dining-room table.

“Now, Oom Gerrie,” Mr. Botha says, as soon as he can find his breath, “you are a shoemaker by trade, and this old saddle has been sent to you by me to make shoes for my children.”

“But you have not got any! and I have never made a shoe in my life!”

“Well, then, for my nieces and nephews. Never mind about your ignorance. When any one comes in, remember you are just on the point of beginning your work. I shall send you an old last when I get home.”

A pocket-knife, a hammer, and a few nails scattered on the table complete the shoemaker’s outfit, and there he sits, with trembling hands and spectacles on nose, far into the night, for does he not expect the dreaded knock at his front door before the dawn of another day?

Next morning Oom Willie raps smartly at the door and walks in unceremoniously, to find Oom Gerrie just about to begin his work, as with shaking hand he adjusts his spectacles.

“How is trade this morning?” he asks, with a jolly laugh, as he settles himself on a chair to watch his friend’s discomfiture. But Oom Gerrie is not pleased at all. The trade is getting on Oom Gerrie’s nerves, and he takes no part in the hilarity around him.

Two days pass, three, four, and no English officer appears, no search is made for contraband of war in Oom Gerrie’s house; but every time the door is opened or a footstep heard on the verandah, Oom Gerrie may be found with one hand plunged in a basin of water, while with the other he adjusts his spectacles.

Poor Oom Gerrie!

He gives up his trade in despair at last, for after all it does not pay, but as long as the old man lives he will be forced to listen to the question:

“How is the boot-making trade?”