Read CHAPTER XXXIX - THE WATCHWORD. OILING THE HINGES of The Petticoat Commando Boer Women in Secret Service , free online book, by Johanna Brandt, on ReadCentral.com.

Three weeks went uneventfully by.

Visitors at Harmony were few and far between, for the story of the “raid” went quickly through the town, and many people who had been in the habit of visiting the van Warmelos, all unsuspecting of the cloud under which they rested, took alarm at this first open hint of danger and discreetly withdrew from the scene.

When Hansie thought of them it was with some contempt and bitterness, but her mind was, at the time, occupied with more important matters, and her fair-weather friends soon passed from her life, never to return again.

Only about a dozen remained, mostly women, friends staunch and true, upon whom one could depend through days of the most crushing adversity.

How close we came to one another in those days only those who have been through similar experiences can ever realise.

Those three uneventful weeks were by no means the least trying of the long war. Sorely tested nervous systems were giving way, fine constitutions were being broken down, and powers of resistance had reached their limit. It needed but the acute anxiety and intense strain of the last adventure which I am about to relate, to reduce our heroines to a state bordering on the hysterical.

The phases of the moon were watched in suspense, and when the time drew near for the next visit from the spies, Mrs. van Warmelo took the precaution of locking Carlo up in the kitchen before retiring for the night. Although she let him out very early every morning in order not to arouse the suspicions of the servants, “Gentleman Jim,” ever on the alert, soon found out that something unusual was taking place.

“Why you lock up the dog every night, missis?” he inquired one morning.

Mrs. van Warmelo was completely taken by surprise, but answered with great presence of mind:

“Oh, because he barks so much that we cannot sleep. But I think I will have to let him out again, because thieves will help themselves to the fruit if there is no watch-dog about.”

The ruse had been found out and Carlo had to be released, although his vigilance added greatly to the dangers of the situation.

The grapes were ripe, great luxurious bunches of purple and golden fruit were weighing down the sturdy old vines.

“I wish Captain Naude would come,” Hansie sighed. “Harmony is at its very best.”

“He won’t come again, I am convinced of that,” her mother answered mournfully. “No more news from the field for us. The dangers are too great, and nothing could be gained by coming into town now that our friends have nearly all been sent away.”

“We shall see,” Hansie said cheerfully. “I have a strong presentiment that the men are coming in this very night. I am going to put everything in readiness for them, and we must go to bed early, dear mother. Perhaps we shall have very little rest to-night.”

This was Sunday night, February 9th.

Hansie packed away various little articles lying about the bedrooms and bathroom, and generally prepared herself for the midnight adventure which she felt more than ever convinced would take place within a few hours, while Mrs. van Warmelo went about with a feather and an oil-can, oiling the hinges and locks.

She was soon sound asleep in her mother’s bedroom, for the two women were not as brave as they had been during the first part of the war and had got into the habit of sleeping together “for company.”

Suddenly at about 2 a.m. they both started up violently, at the sound of Carlo’s furious barking near their window, where he usually kept guard.

Mrs. van Warmelo sat up and panted “Here they are,” but Hansie’s heart was beating so loudly in her throat that she was unable to reply.

Mrs. van Warmelo went quickly to the window, and on cautiously raising the blind saw the forms of two men close to the window, undistinguishable in the darkness but quite evidently the cause of Carlo’s startled and furious barkings. She ran through the bathroom and, opening the door leading to the garden, asked softly, “Who is there?”

“Appelkoos,” the welcome answer came clearly and cautiously, and Mrs. van Warmelo drew the men unceremoniously into the room, noiselessly locking the door.

“Not a word, not a sound,” she commanded, “remove your boots you have never been in greater peril.”

“Hush! What was that? A man’s voice outside! The sergeant-major? The police? My God! then we are lost indeed!”

But no! Only one moment of agonising suspense and the familiar voice of “Gentleman Jim” could be heard, reprimanding the growling watchdog.

“What for you make so much noise, Carlo? Go to sleep, bad dog you frighten everybody when you kick up so much row.”

Muttering discontentedly, he retired to his room, evidently reassured by the dead silence which pervaded the house.

For some time the four people inside stood close together without a word. No lights were lit, no sound whatever made until Carlo’s restless growlings ceased and he had settled himself to sleep again.

Then only were a few whispered words of welcome and greeting exchanged and a breathless account given of the dangers with which Harmony was surrounded.

“How did you come in?” Mrs. van Warmelo asked.

“Through the drift,” Naude replied. “There were no guards in fact, we did not see a soul from first to last, and the dog was the only one to object to our midnight wanderings. We were nearly on top of him before he woke.”

Nearly on top of the sensitive and alert watchdog before he became aware of their proximity! No wonder, then, that the Boer spies frequently glided up so close to the English outposts that they were able to knock them down with a wooden stick or the butt end of a gun before they could give the alarm or utter a sound!

The men were tired and exhausted, and gladly stretched themselves on the beds to get what sleep they could before morning, having first divested themselves of their outward trappings, helmets, etc., which they buried under the floor. As before, the Captain came in a khaki uniform, while his orderly, Venter, was dressed like a soldier.

As it was necessary for them to remain in Mrs. van Warmelo’s bedroom in order to be near their place of refuge under the floor, mother and daughter retired to the dining-room, there to watch and wait for the dawn of day.

Would the long night never end?

Every time Carlo barked the two women started up from their couches and listened with straining ears for sounds of commotion outside but in vain. Nothing disturbed the serenity of the night, and when the rosy glow of dawn broke in the eastern sky and gradually spread its glory over the hushed and expectant earth, Hansie fell into a fitful slumber.

Not so her mother. Mrs. van Warmelo had been quietly pondering over “Gentleman Jim’s” unexpected appearance at the first sign of commotion in the night and had come to the conclusion that something should be done to disarm his suspicions.

That the guard of Military Police had been withdrawn from Harmony was very evident, but it was quite possible that the task of maintaining a vigilant watch had been transferred to Jim, with promises of a liberal payment if he succeeded in getting information which might lead to the arrest of Boer spies.

Mrs. van Warmelo therefore cautiously rose, while the rest of the household lay in sleep, plucked clusters of grapes from the vines and strewed them about the garden paths. The ruse answered excellently.

“Gentleman Jim” himself discovered the grapes lying about the garden and was loud in his expressions of indignation.

“Them thieves have been at the grapes again,” he called out.

“Look here, missis, here is a bunch and another, and here is some more.” He shook his head in despair.

The sergeant-major too was sent for and informed of the plundering that had been carried on in the small hours of the morning.

“What is to be done?” he asked. “Shall I put a guard here again?”

Mrs. van Warmelo thanked him for his kind offer, but thought that very little damage had been done, and was of opinion that Carlo’s vigilance would be sufficient to prevent the thieves, whoever they might be, from returning on a second pilfering expedition.

When Hansie woke it was past six o’clock, and the Captain was sitting near her, drinking coffee and chatting with her mother in a matter-of-fact way, evidently quite at home and glad to find himself in such comfortable quarters again.

The whole of that eventful February 10th was spent in writing dispatches and procuring articles of clothing and small necessaries for the men to take out with them; three pairs of riding-breeches, shirts, brown felt hats, leggings, boots, soap, salt, cotton, etc., etc.

Fortunately, among the few remaining men in town who could be trusted to carry out these commissions was the young man behind the counter in the store in Church Street.

To him Hansie went with a small list, which she laid before him without a word.

He glanced over it and whistled softly.

“Leggings? Riding-breeches? When must you have them?”

“If possible this evening,” she replied.

“I’ll do my best,” he said, and she departed joyfully.

“Now, I could never have got those things myself without rousing great suspicion,” she thought as she cycled rapidly to the next person whom she had been instructed to see van der Westhuizen with the bandaged arm.

“The Captain came last night with Venter,” she whispered hurriedly. “They are at Harmony, and Naude wishes to see you as soon as possible on a matter of great importance. No one must know of his presence in town this time, not even our best friends, for he has a dangerous mission to fulfil and you must help him.”

“I shall be there some time to-day,” he said.

Hansie thanked him and departed.

Much writing work waited her at Harmony, and the rest of the day was spent in drawing up dispatches at the Captain’s dictation and making notes of the condition of the various commandos.

In the course of a long conversation with him he told her the object of his visit and why he required van der Westhuizen’s services.

“My flying column of scouts is over sixty strong, picked men and wonderfully brave,” he said. “They are all in khaki and scour the country, doing the enemy incalculable harm, but they would be of more service to the commandos if they had better horses. Our horses are worn-out and underfed, their life is very hard, and it is imperative that we should have them reinforced. Now, we have heard that there are many magnificent horses kept at Skinner’s Court, remounts kept in good condition for the special use of officers. Those horses we must have, and we have come to get all the information we can about the strength of the guards at Skinner’s Court. For this I require van der Westhuizen’s assistance.”

Hansie felt a thrill of excitement.

The adventure was very much to her taste, and she remembered with delight that first successful raid on British stables. She wished she could supply the desired information. To steal the enemy’s best horses seemed to her an enterprise worth toiling for, for there would probably be little or no bloodshed connected with it and, if successful, the reward would be very great.

But she felt assured that the adventure could not be in more capable, more trustworthy hands than in those of the silent van der Westhuizen.

When van der Westhuizen arrived, he and the Captain were closeted together in the bedroom for nearly an hour, and then he departed as silently as he had come, but Hansie had observed the look of steadfast determination on his face, and was satisfied.

Very unlike the previous visit was this, the last sojourn of the Secret Service men at Harmony.

There was no entertaining of shoals of trusted friends, no lying about under the trees, no sociable gathering of strawberries.

The men were not allowed to leave their bedroom during the day, but remained in safe proximity to the place of refuge under the floor, where their belongings lay buried.

Of the many plans devised by Mrs. van Warmelo for the safety of her guests, the following was decided upon as being the most ingenious:

A large bath was brought into her bedroom and half-filled with soapy water, bath-towels, sponges, and other toilet requisites being placed near by in readiness for use. In the event of a raid, Mrs. van Warmelo (if she had time to do so) would rush into the room, locking the door on the inside, while her daughter (if she had the presence of mind and kept cool enough) informed the police that her mother was having a bath. Thus time would be gained to enable the men to creep into their hiding-place.

The bath of soapy water, standing in readiness night and day, was a constant source of amusement during that time of suspense.

The men begged to be allowed to smoke, but Mrs. van Warmelo protested strongly. In case of an unexpected search, how was she going to account for the smell of smoke in her bedroom?

Seeing, however, that this restriction was becoming a source of great discomfort to them in the monotony of their imprisonment, she gave them permission to smoke in the dining-room while she and Hansie kept watch outside.

Even with these precautions Mrs. van Warmelo seemed to feel very uneasy, and Hansie coming into the kitchen unexpectedly one afternoon, found the Captain standing beside the stove and blowing vigorous puffs of smoke up the chimney!

Volcanoes and earthquakes would have been a welcome change to every one after those never-to-be-forgotten days of strain and tension; and much as Hansie had longed to see some one from commando again, her longing to see these men depart became a hundred times more intense. There was no pleasure for any one during that visit of two days, for the very air was charged with treachery, and not even the servants could be trusted with the dread secret.

The men were waited on stealthily, food was brought in unobserved and the plates and dishes washed surreptitiously by the two watchful women, who took turns in guarding the place and enjoyed what conversation they could get in fragments from their guests.

That night was spent in anxiety and unrest, and again the glorious day was hailed with joy and relief.

Van der Westhuizen was an early visitor that morning, and the report of his investigations of the past night must have been highly satisfactory to the men, to judge by their faces. The women were not taken into their confidence, but Hansie watched and wondered, and dared not even ask whether the attack on Skinner’s Court was to be made or not.

It was better not to know.

The long summer’s day went slowly by, broken only once when Hansie rushed into the bedroom with a breathless, “Danger, danger hide yourselves!”

It was not at all funny at the time, but afterwards, when Hansie thought it over, she laughed and laughed again at the recollection of those two men, diving for the hole in the floor, and of their resentful looks when they emerged, on hearing that the alarm had been caused by the unexpected appearance of “Um-Ah.”

The departure that night was in dead silence. There was no hearty “send-off” under the six willows, no escort through the bush, van der Westhuizen alone going on ahead to see if the coast were clear.

The events of that night are blurred and vague in the memory of the two solitary women, and Hansie’s diary contains but meagre information on the subject in fact, her war-diary practically ends here.

Frail womanhood had reached the breaking-point.

A period of dull suffering, of deadly indifference followed, broken one day by the news, with which the whole town rang, that Skinner’s Court had been stormed by the Boers and that every horse had been taken, fourteen in all, valuable remounts of the officers.

Hansie just glanced at her mother and then asked hoarsely, “Was any one hurt? Was any one taken?”

“No,” the answer came, with a curious look at her strained face; “the attack was so wholly unexpected, and the Boers so evidently informed of every detail of the place, that they were gone with all the horses almost before a shot could be fired.”

This meant not only that the Captain had reached his men in safety, but that the enterprising object of his visit had been successfully carried out, beyond his most sanguine expectations.

And now we take our leave of the brave Captain whose name appears so often and so honourably in this book, and in leaving him, we quote, at his request, the tribute with which he closed his little book In Doodsgevaar ("In Danger of Death") published in August 1903 a tribute to the women who assisted him.

“I feel it my duty, before closing this story of our personal experiences of the war, to direct a word of thanks and appreciation to those faithful South African mothers and sisters who personally supported us during those difficult days and did what they could in Pretoria to further our cause in the field. But how can this be done? I have no adequate words at my command, and I feel that the work of these women is above all expression of appreciation.”

“When I look back on those days, there floats across my mind not only the names, but also the personality of each of these worthy women, and I remember to the minutest detail their self-sacrifice and the zeal with which they stood by us during our visits to Pretoria, while exposed to the danger of themselves being plunged into the greatest difficulties. But for this they had no thought, no care, as long as the sacred cause could be advanced. I feel, however, that it would be out of place to mention the names of a few where so many risked their all, willingly offering even the sacrifice of their lives, if necessary, to further the interests of our cause.”

“How fervently I should have wished to see their great work
crowned with a well-deserved reward!”

“He who rules the destinies of nations decreed it otherwise, however, and we must bow in resignation to His will, but, faithful women and girls of South Africa, rest assured that your noble work and self-sacrifice have not been in vain. For myself I find in that which was performed by you this great abiding comfort, that so long as South Africa possesses women and girls of your stamp, so long can we go forward to meet the future hopefully and cheerfully; so long as the spirit, nourished by you, still lives and thrives in our midst, so long may we pursue our way fearlessly.”

“The struggle is over, brought to an end more than a year ago, and some of us have already learnt to adapt ourselves to our altered circumstances. We have been taught by those whose position, as leaders of the people, gives them the fullest right thereto, how to conduct ourselves, and we require no further encouragement to follow that advice.”

“But we feel that we cannot lay sufficient emphasis on the injunction to be true to one another as a nation, to be true to our traditions of the past, true to the lessons we have learnt in the recent conflict.”

“We have seen to what a pass one can be brought by infidelity.”

“Let us in future live in such a way that nothing may be lost of
the honour which is our inheritance from the battle-fields of
South Africa.”

“Farewell.”