Read CHAPTER XXIX - A WAR-BABY AND A CURIOUS CHRISTENING of The Petticoat Commando Boer Women in Secret Service , free online book, by Johanna Brandt, on ReadCentral.com.

As far as was known, no men were arrested that night.

The man who had escorted the spies through Sunnyside and over the railway line, the dauntless van der Westhuizen with the bandaged arm, had left them not far from the wire enclosure, and had then waited some time, listening for sounds of commotion.

As no shots had broken the stillness of the night, he had every reason to believe that they had escaped with their lives.

For some weeks there was a “lull in spies.” But there was no lack of other sensations, for September 1901 will ever be remembered as one of the most trying months throughout the year of the war.

It reminded one of that September month before war was declared, when the air was filled with the sweet, penetrating odour of orange-blossoms and many hearts were torn with the agony of suspense and a feeling of impending disaster.

Again the orange trees were in full bloom, bringing back to one’s senses the remembrance of past suffering, and the full realisation of present horror and unrest.

The great weeping-willows were showing their first mysterious tinge of pale yellowish green, and Hansie, watching them, wondered what developments would have taken place before those overhanging branches would be crowned with the full beauty of midsummer. September 1901 was a month of proclamations and peace negotiations, all of which “ended in smoke.”

After General Botha’s visit to Pretoria the Boers concentrated their forces around the capital, strong commandos under General Botha, de la Rey, Beyers, and Viljoen. It was said that there were quite 6,000 troops in town awaiting developments, and Hansie coming home one evening, surprised her mother by saying that “Khaki was in the deuce of a funk!”

Her mother remonstrated with her, expressing her strong disapproval of such language, but Hansie only laughed.

“I was told so in town, mother. The enemy seems to expect our people to sweep through the town, if only to release our prisoners. How I wish they would come and carry off some of our splendid men in the jail and Rest Camp!”

The fate of the Committee men had not yet been decided.

As they were kept in solitary confinement and naturally not allowed to hold communication with any of their friends, nothing was known at the time of the troubles undergone by them, and it was some years after the war before Hansie came into full possession of the facts.

Ten men in all had been taken that night, the five members of the Committee and five other men in their service, and they were kept separate, not being allowed to see one another during the sixteen days of their imprisonment in the Pretoria jail.

Now, the remarkable part about this story is, that though nothing had been arranged between these men in the event of an arrest, no line of action agreed upon by them by which they could safely guard themselves and their friends, they one and all adopted the same policy under the severe cross-questioning to which they were subjected in their cells.

My readers must understand that trials under martial law are not necessarily conducted with the ordinary formalities of a court of justice; in fact, in the case of these men it cannot be said that there was a trial at all, for they were cross-questioned in their cells apart, and without witnesses.

They never saw the light of day except for a ten-minutes’ exercise in the prison-yard every morning; and, on comparing notes afterwards, they found that they had been subjected to the same treatment undergone by the unfortunate men who had turned King’s evidence and who had been the cause of their undoing. To some of them the death sentence was read at night, with a promise of pardon if they betrayed the names of their fellow-conspirators in town, and sometimes they were visited in their cells by officers who informed them that one or other of their fellow-prisoners had “given away the show.”

“You may safely speak out now, for we know everything. So-and-so has turned King’s evidence.” But these brave men saw through the ruse, and steadfastly refused to sell their honour for their lives. With one accord they answered, “So-and-so may have given you information, but I know nothing.”

They were subjected to severe treatment, half-starved, threatened, told that they were condemned to death, and then severely left alone with the sword hanging over their heads to no avail. Not a word of information was wrung from them, no murmur of complaint crossed their lips.

This lasted sixteen days, and during that time they suffered intensely, the food being unfit for consumption and their surroundings filthy beyond words. As I have said before, there were among their number men physically unfit for hardships like these.

Mr. Willem Botha was one of them, and as the days dragged on, the headaches with which he was afflicted became more frequent and increased in violence.

He feared that he would lose his reason and, in losing it, betray all to his jailers, and he was consumed with anxiety for his wife.

After the first shock of his arrest, he was suddenly overwhelmed with the recollection that he had forgotten to destroy the slip of paper on which the message concerning the Boer traitor in the Free State had been conveyed to him through a prisoner in the Rest Camp. He tried to remember what he had done with it, but in vain. Each day found him torn with anxiety, searching his memory for the threads of recollection, broken in the stress of the last stirring events before his arrest. Suddenly one day it flashed across his mind that he had pushed the slip of paper between the tattered leaves of an old hymn-book.

Bitterly he reproached himself with his unpardonable negligence. That slip of paper, containing injunctions to the Committee to convey information of such a serious character to the Boer leaders, would be sufficient proof against him and his fellows. No other evidence would be required to bring them to their death, if it had fallen into the hands of the enemy.

The unfortunate man, in his prison cell, prayed for deliverance, not only for himself, but for the trusty comrades who would be exposed to such deadly peril by this, his one act of indiscretion.

The weary days dragged on.

Suffering, not to be described by words, was the daily portion of this man.

His fellow-prisoners shared the same fate, with one exception.

Mr. Hattingh in his prison cell, who had been taken in his deacon’s frock-coat that Sunday night, reaped the rewards of the sagacity he had displayed on the occasion of the visit to his house of the Judas-Boer.

There was a marked difference in the treatment he received at the hands of his jailers. He was not once condemned to death, and he was hardly cross-questioned during the entire term of his imprisonment better food, kinder treatment being accorded him than to any of his fellows, as he found on comparing notes with them afterwards.

It was quite evident that he was the only man about whose guilt the enemy was in a certain amount of doubt.

His family, too, was privileged, his wife being allowed a few days’ grace to sell her household goods before she was conveyed to a camp with her children, while the families of the other men were instantly removed and their homes taken into possession by the English.

If the enemy had only known it, Mr. Hattingh, who was known for his uprightness and moral integrity, had no intention of perjuring himself in the witness-box, but had fully made up his mind to confess his complicity and to face his death like a man and a patriot.

There is no doubt that this brave man would have been endowed with the required courage to uphold his word when the hour came, but it is equally certain that no word of accusation in evidence against his fellow-conspirators would have been wrung from his lips.

When at the end of the sixteen days no proof of their guilt had been found, their captors, recognising and appreciating their staunch fidelity and unswerving loyalty, removed them from their cells in the dreary jail to the Rest Camp, where they were able to enjoy the privileges of the ordinary prisoners of war, and refreshing intercourse with their brothers from the field.

But before they were admitted to the Rest Camp they were brought one by one into the presence of a British officer, who pompously read their sentence to them.

How the other men passed through their interview with him I do not know, but Mr. Hattingh’s story, told in his own words, runs thus:

After a few questions had been put, the British officer said to him:

“You have been found guilty of high treason, but Lord Kitchener has been kind enough to commute your sentence to banishment as prisoner of war.”

“But how could you find me guilty?” Mr. Hattingh asked. “I have never been tried.”

“Be silent,” the officer commanded sternly. “You have nothing to say.”

Mr. Hattingh says he was only too glad to “be silent,” and betook himself to the Rest Camp with alacrity.

During the weeks of their imprisonment in the jail those at Harmony were not living in a bed of roses.

Of Willie Botha’s loyalty they never had a doubt, but the other men were unknown to them, and they knew that all were aware of the part played by them in the Secret Service. And even if they were not betrayed by one of the prisoners, it was a mystery that they had not been betrayed with them.

Many of their friends, the families of the men in jail, had been sent to Camps or across the border, and no one was more surprised at finding themselves still in Pretoria than Mrs. van Warmelo and her daughter.

They felt the strain, the uncertainty of their position keenly, and throughout those weeks they were obliged to conceal from their good friends, the Consuls and their families, the danger to which they were exposed and the intense anxiety with which they were filled, not only on their own account, but for those brave men in the Pretoria jail.

Towards the end of September, when the prisoners had been removed to the Rest Camp, a baby-girl was born in Willie Botha’s house.

The mother had been left undisturbed in her home, a consideration for which she and all who were concerned for her were devoutly grateful, and now she had passed through the portals of Gethsemane and the wide gates of Eden, in the bitter-sweet experiences of motherhood.

The news of the birth of a daughter was duly conveyed to Willie Botha in the Rest Camp, with a request to the authorities to allow him to visit his wife and see his child before leaving South Africa’s shores for Bermuda.

Permission was granted for a two-hours’ visit.

An armed soldier escorted him to his home and sat outside, under the verandah, drinking coffee and enjoying the good things with which he had been provided, while, inside, his prisoner, speechless with emotion, knelt beside the mother’s bed, showering kisses on the tiny feet of his infant daughter.

When the first greetings were over Mr. Botha said:

“Wife, what became of that old hymn-book which was standing on the shelf in the dining-room?”

“I don’t know,” she answered; “I suppose it was taken away by Elliot with all the other books and papers.”

“Elliot!” he muttered between his teeth.

“Elliot, betrayer of friends, and Judas-Boer!”

This man had been intimately known to them all, had, in fact, for many months lived with his wife and family, as guest and friend, under the hospitable roof of Mr. and Mrs. Hattingh, at whose hands they received innumerable acts of love and kindness.

Elliot was the man by whom the members of the Secret Committee were arrested that Sunday night.

Verily it can be said of him

“For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it; neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him. But it was thou, a man my equal, my guide, and my acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company.”

The occasion of Willie Botha’s visit having been made to serve at the same time as a christening, there were quiet, sacred rejoicings when the minister, who had in the meantime arrived, performed the ceremony.

As soon as the service was over Mr. Botha walked rapidly to the dining-room and glanced over the empty book-shelves. Nothing there!

He stood on tiptoe for a moment, surveying the topmost shelf, and was about to turn away disappointed, when his eye fell on the tattered psalm-book, lying unnoticed in a corner of the shelf.

He could hardly believe his eyes! He pounced on the book, turning over the pages in the greatest agitation and suspense.

The fateful slip of paper fell into his hands!

Triumphantly he marched back to his wife’s bedroom and held the magic paper before her astonished eyes, telling her of the sleepless nights and days of suspense he had endured through it.

With unspeakable thankfulness in their hearts, they then and there reduced the fragment of paper to ashes, thanking God for His wonderful deliverance.

But the hour of parting was now at hand and over this, good reader, we must draw the veil.

On their way back to the Rest Camp the armed escort, becoming confidential, positively assured his charge that peace would be proclaimed before October 10th. The “Powers” had intervened, he said, and the English were leaving the country!

He was an Irishman.