Read CHAPTER XXVII - THE BETRAYAL OF THE SECRET COMMITTEE. of The Petticoat Commando Boer Women in Secret Service , free online book, by Johanna Brandt, on ReadCentral.com.

A MEMORABLE DAY OF TROUBLE

It was only a few days after the van Warmelos had parted from Mr. Botha that Mr. J. Joubert arrived at Harmony with the tidings that four men had again entered the town that night. One of them was a lad of nineteen, young Erasmus, whose parents had been killed by lightning when he was a child, and to whom Mrs. Joubert had been a second mother.

When he arrived at their home that night they were very angry with him, and demanded what he meant by coming into the very heart of danger.

He meekly answered that he had merely come to see how they were all getting on, and to spend a few days at home, casually remarking that there was a dearth of horse-shoe nails on commando, and that he had been ordered to bring some out.

He and his comrades knew nothing of the recent betrayal, and it was their good fortune that they had used an entirely different route, coming through Skinner’s Court. They had not seen a single guard.

Besides the horse-shoe nails, there was the usual demand for clothing and European and Colonial newspapers.

Mrs. van Warmelo immediately made a parcel of the cuttings which she and her friends had been collecting for some time past, and wrote a tiny note to Mr. Greyling, warning him and his fellows against coming in through the usual way, which was now guarded, and informing him that his name had been betrayed. This note was hidden in a match-box with a double false bottom, covered with matches, and given to Erasmus to be handed to Greyling.

Since the revelations made, it was not safe to see the spies, nor was it known by whom the match-box had been sent.

After all, in spite of Mrs. Joubert’s vexation with the reckless youth, she was thankful to know that some one was going out to Skurveberg with a warning to the Secret Service.

Erasmus had to leave without the horse-shoe nails, because, though J. Joubert hunted all over the town, he could not procure enough to send out.

The stores sold them only to the military and blacksmiths, and the latter were curious to know why he did not bring his horses to them to be shod.

Mother and daughter were there at 5.30 p.m., with their parcels, and at 6 p.m. the spies were to leave, Mrs. Malan and van der Westhuizen driving out with them as far as they could.

That was a real danger, compared with which all other risks were as nothing, to drive through the streets of Pretoria with spies, at a time when everyone was liable to be stopped to produce residential passes and to show permits for horses and carriages.

But, indeed, those women were not to be intimidated by anything!

We have now come to a morning into which many events of disastrous importance were crowded, the fateful September 9th. Before breakfast, an agitated girl, unknown at Harmony, arrived with the intelligence that Mr. Willem Botha had been arrested at 8 o’clock the night before.

No other names were mentioned then, but it was felt instinctively that the entire Secret Committee had been betrayed and arrested, and the news, when it reached Harmony during the course of the day, found mother and daughter to some extent prepared. The shock, nevertheless, was so great, so crushing, that it took them some time to recover sufficiently to form a plan of action.

Hansie hastily swallowed some food and was preparing to go to town, when her mother asked her what she meant to do, whether she had thought of anything, or if it was advisable to show herself at all just then.

“I don’t know what I am going to do afterwards, mother,” she said, “but I am going straight to Mrs. Botha now.”

“Hansie!” exclaimed Mrs. van Warmelo in consternation, “you will do nothing of the kind. Their house will be watched, and you will be followed home. You can do nothing to help that poor woman now, and to be seen with her would be an unpardonable and unnecessary risk.”

But Hansie had made up her mind, and nothing could persuade her that it was not her duty to stand by her friend in her hour of need. There was good reason, too, for her anxiety.

After thirteen years of happy, though childless married life, Mr. and Mrs. Botha’s home was about to be blessed with an infant child, and it was the thought of the expectant mother’s anguish and despair that took Hansie to her side.

“Well” (Mrs. van Warmelo was secretly pleased with her daughter’s behaviour), “if you are determined to expose yourself to this danger, I think I had better begin to pack at once, for we shall certainly be sent away.”

“All right, mother,” Hansie laughed; “pack away, and I’ll come home as soon as I can to help you.”

She took tender leave of her mother, cheering her with hopeful words and whistling gaily to Carlo to come and protect her on her adventurous expedition.

No one could have been more surprised to see Hansie than Mrs. Botha. She stared as if she could not believe her eyes, and then fell sobbing on her young friend’s shoulder.

“How could you risk it to come here?” she exclaimed.

“No one else has been near me, and I am deserted by all my friends since ” here she fell a-weeping again, and clung to Hansie for support.

As soon as she could speak, she gave an account of all that had taken place.

She and her husband were sitting under the verandah the night before, talking about the miserable business of the spy’s infidelity and its disastrous results to so many people in town. Mr. Botha was just saying that, in the event of his arrest, his wife need have no fear of his betraying a friend, and that the English might shoot him, but they would not get a shred of information out of him, when two detectives on bicycles rode up and dismounted at the steps.

Mrs. Botha just had time to whisper hurriedly to her husband that she would rather see him dead than have him come back to her a traitor, when the detectives, producing a warrant for his arrest, approached him.

He gave himself up quietly; there was nothing else for him to do. He was unarmed, for it was one of the first rules of the Committee and practically their only safeguard in the event of an arrest, to carry on their work without weapons of any sort.

The house was thoroughly searched for spies and all books and papers were taken away, but, thanks to Mr. Botha’s prudence and foresight, not a single incriminating document was found.

The remembrance of this was a source of great comfort to his wife, for, without proofs, his life was safe, although he would probably be sent as prisoner of war to one of the distant islands.

Mrs. Botha was a brave and true woman. She did not think of herself at all, but she was so much concerned for Hansie’s safety that she urged her to go home at once and not to come again. The first part of her injunctions Hansie obeyed, but she refused to promise not to be seen at that house again.

It was being closely watched, there was no doubt of that, and on getting into a cab she soon became aware of being followed by two men on bicycles.

This was rather exciting, and Hansie actually enjoyed the chase. Instead of urging her cabby to whip up his horses, she gave him instructions to go as slowly as possible, well knowing that it would be more difficult for any one on a bicycle to follow a crawling cab unnoticed than to pursue a more swiftly moving vehicle.

When she reached Harmony and paid her fare she saw, out of the corner of her eye, that the men dismounted before the War Office.

“Were you followed home?” was her mother’s first question.

“Yes, indeed,” she replied, laughing; “they are near our gate at this very moment, and I can just imagine them going to the sergeant-major presently, asking questions about the people living here. And I am quite sure his answer will be, ’Bless you, no. Those two ladies are quiet and well-behaved, and you don’t suppose they could be carrying on any of that business under my very nose!’”

Hansie’s diaries had all been removed to an office in town and placed in a safe safe. All safes were not “safe” in those days, but this one belonged to a man who was known as a model of good behaviour throughout the war. White envelopes, diaries, copies of official dispatches from the field, all had been removed from Harmony, except the “White Diary” which lay open on her writing-table, and to which we owe a detailed account of the stirring events of September 1901.

What it naturally did not contain was accurate information of the arrest of the other Committee members and their subsequent experiences.

Trusted friends were beyond her reach, and she had to content herself with what information she could gather from men “about the town,” but this information, verified by what she was told by the men concerned long after the war was over, will give the reader a fair idea of the events of this period.

Not only Mr. Botha, but all the members of the Secret Committee had been arrested that night, and two days later the staggering tidings came of Mr. Jannie Joubert’s removal to the Rest Camp, where “political prisoners” were detained.

Now indeed fears of a speedy raid on Harmony were justified.

Their fellow-conspirators were all in the hand of the enemy, and although they trusted them implicitly, and knew there was no one amongst them base enough to betray his friends, they had no reason to think that the people who had betrayed the others would spare them.

One revelation after the other was made that day, and Hansie learnt from some one, who said he was in possession of all the facts, that, despicable though the treacherous spy’s behaviour had been, he was not responsible for the exposure of the Secret Service Committee.

Alas, no! the appearance of another traitor in our midst has to be recorded here.

One of the young spies in the service of the Committee had been taken by the enemy, how and where I am not at liberty to say, but there were circumstances connected with his capture, and facts known to the enemy of the hazardous part he had played on previous occasions, which made it clear from the beginning that he would be convicted.

Some one who was allowed to visit him regularly in his cell told me that he stood his trial bravely and steadfastly refused to betray a single name to save himself. Threats and persuasions were of no avail.

On Saturday night in his cell his death sentence was read to him.

The execution was to take place on Sunday morning at 6 o’clock, he was told.

Incidentally his jailers informed him that there was still a chance for him if he would give the authorities the names of some of the people in town who were in communication with the Boers in the field.

He was then left to his pleasant reflections.

Reader, we must not be too harsh in our judgment of him. He was only a boy, not yet twenty years of age, and we shall never know what anguish of mind he endured that night.

When day broke he was in no way fit for the harrowing scene awaiting him. His father, his sister, and his fiancee were admitted to his cell at the fateful hour that morning, to take their last leave of him.

They clung to him, sobbing, wailing, and imploring him to give the names of his fellow-conspirators. What arguments were brought to bear upon him we shall never know.

He yielded, and in that God-forsaken cell on Sunday morning he gave the names required of him, the five members of the Secret Committee and other names familiar to us all, Jannie Joubert, Franz Smit, Liebenberg, etc.

Ah, if he had been executed that day, how his memory would have been revered by his friends and respected by his foes! But what was he now? a traitor, oh God! a traitor to his land and people!

And a coward too, base and craven-hearted, shielding his miserable life with dishonour and treachery.

That the enemy would not have shot him in any case, because of his youth, makes no difference to the blackness of his deed, except perhaps to add to the bitterness of his remorse when afterwards he was apprised of this fact.

The death sentence was commuted, and instead he was sentenced to several years’ hard labour; he was, in fact, still “doing time” in Pretoria and Johannesburg two years after peace had been declared.

Of the women who were the cause of his downfall I can only say that they were never in any way connected with the “Petticoat Commando.”

When the news of Jannie Joubert’s arrest became known, Mrs. van Warmelo positively forbade her daughter to go to Mrs. Joubert’s house.

There was nothing to be done, and although they had every reason to believe that their names were on the list of the betrayed, nothing could be gained by exposing themselves to unnecessary danger.

It was told Hansie, the day after the last sweeping arrests had been made, that Mrs. Joubert’s carriage had been standing before the Military Governor’s office for some time.

This information brought the reality of the situation vividly to her mind.

What was the old lady doing there? Pleading for her son? Was there no way of helping her? These questions preyed on Hansie’s mind, until she obtained permission from her mother to visit Mr. Jannie’s sister, Mrs. Malan.

Mrs. Malan was in bed with influenza, she said, but it was quite evident that acute distress of mind had a large share in her indisposition.

On Sunday night, after the fateful morning of the last betrayal, the Jouberts were surprised by a visit from the Provost-Marshal himself, accompanied by another officer.

They asked permission to search the house for the ammunition which they knew to be concealed there. Ammunition! Jannie said he knew of none, except a boxful of cartridges standing in the loft. They had been found lying about the house and were stowed away when the English had taken possession of Pretoria. He took the officers up to the loft and showed them the box, but they were not satisfied, and ordered him to appear before the Provost-Marshal the next day, to give a satisfactory explanation.

A search was also made for documents, but nothing was found except an old heliographic chart which his father, Commandant-General Joubert, had used long ago in Kaffir wars.

Jannie Joubert went the following day to give an account of himself, and the next thing his mother heard was that he had been arrested and removed to the Rest Camp. (Arrest Camp, some people called it!)

He was very independent and refused to take the oath of neutrality, which, strange to say, he had hitherto avoided, and it would certainly not have been to his taste had he known that his mother had been to the Military Governor to intercede for him.

The result of that interview was not satisfactory. He would only be released on signing parole.

This, Mrs. Malan thought, he would certainly refuse to do.

“We were treated with marked kindness,” she continued, “and this may be taken as proof that the English are not aware of the real facts.”

The two women laughed in mutual understanding of their conspiracies.

“Still this leniency may be only a blind, Hansie. It is painful not to know how much the enemy knows.”

“What will you do if Captain Naude and Mr. Greyling come in to-night?” Hansie asked.

“Shelter them, of course!” was the undaunted reply.

That night as Hansie lay on her sleepless pillow, she felt as if all the batteries of the gold mines were thumping on her heart.

Mrs. Malan’s last words to her rang continually in her ears:

“Willie Botha will be executed without a doubt.”

But before day dawned Hansie’s heart was at rest and she slept, for she had solved the problem in her mind.

She would go to General Maxwell and plead with him for the life of her friend.

He was human and tender-hearted, that she knew, and she would tell him how an innocent young life hung in the balance, how the lives of both mother and child would be imperilled if such a cruel fate befell the father. If her pleadings were of no avail, she would offer to give, in exchange for his life, the name of one well known to her as a dangerous enemy to the English.

And when she had made sure of his release, hers would be the name she would reveal.

During the dark days which followed Hansie found her strong support in the thought of this resolve.