Our trek to Heilbron had borne good fruit, not only in that it had freed us from the baneful influence which the surrender at Nauwpoort had caused, but we had also learned to know each other better. The heterogeneous elements of the laager became more and more homogeneous. It seemed quite natural that there should be one man in command. At his bidding we trekked, and at his command we halted. By degrees we became used to discipline, a clear proof of which was the fact that no one fired unnecessary shots, or set the veld on fire.
From Vecht Kop we trekked in a south-westerly direction. We pursued this course the whole week till we got near Ventersburg, keeping about eighteen miles away from the railway line. How endless these night marches in the depth of winter seemed. The waggons that brought up the rear seldom reached the camping-place before two or three o'clock in the morning. The least delay in front affected each vehicle in the rear. When a ford was reached a halt was called to see how things looked there, and then the whole trek behind was kept waiting, and in this manner from two to five minutes were always lost. The next waggon then reached the ford, and the same thing was done over again. Again the waggons behind had to wait, with a similar loss of time. When a waggon got stuck the delay was even longer. Then, in addition, a fearful commotion arose. There was dreadful shouting and yelling before the Kaffirs could convince the oxen that they had to get the waggon out by hook or by crook.
This slow progress was inexpressibly tedious, and we resorted to all sorts of contrivances to beguile the time. I sometimes would ride on ahead, and then with my horse's bridle over my arm would sit or lie down on the grass till the last waggon had passed, when I would again ride on and wait; or else I would walk leading my horse, in order to warm my feet. In this manner the time passed till, to my delight, I saw lights in the distance, which proved to me that a portion of the laager had already reached the halting-place. When at last I arrived there, a piece of meat was half-broiled on the coals and heartily relished. How it looked, and how much of the ashes adhered to it, could not be seen in the dark; but this made no difference, for the long trek in the cold winter night had sharpened our appetites.
During this week we crossed Rhenoster River, and one morning at two o'clock we arrived at Doornkloof. Later in the day I had the pleasure of visiting the farm of that stalwart "voortrekker," Sarel Cellier. Thirty years before I had as a boy met him there alive and well. It was a pleasure to me now to be able to pass a short time there with his widow. But it struck me painfully how troublesome the burghers were to the women on the farms. The house was constantly so full that there was no place for everyone to sit down. They were continually going and coming, and asking for this and that. "Has Tante (Aunt) any dried fruit for sale?" "Do bake for me; I will give you the flour." "Auntie can make bread or vetkoek (dampers) of it, just as you think fit." "Can't Auntie have my clothes washed?" When I heard this I said, "My dear man, do as I do—wash your own clothes." And yet how could I blame others for being troublesome when I had on one occasion got a loaf of bread from that house myself? I feel, however, that I need not plead guilty, for I very seldom went into the houses. Sometimes, as on this occasion, I went to see acquaintances. At other times the occupants of the house had heard that I was in the laager and invited me into the house. But as a rule I did not go to farms.
When we were at Doornkloof the question persistently presented itself to me: Where in the world are we going to? for we did nothing but wander from one place to another; so at least it seemed to me. I made a note in my diary to the following effect: "Not with levity nor irreverently do I call to mind the first words of the hymn—Whither, pilgrims, whither go ye?" We turn to the north and then to the south and—
"You are running away!"
Very well, we were running away, if you wish. What of that? Don't we keep the war going in this way? The English imagine they have conquered us. This is far from being the fact. They have occupied the towns, but they are not in possession of the country. They have annexed the Republic, but not the people. Their troops march out in overwhelming numbers wherever they wish, east and west, from one town to another, and we cannot prevent them, but we remain in the field nevertheless; we are still free. We turn to the right and to the left, and our adversary is not able with all his cannon to prevent it. In this way we keep the war going, and increase the expenditure day by day. In this way we worry our adversary; and thus we hope—the weak against the strong, like the widow and the unjust judge in the parable—to force the stronger to yield to our importunity. In the evening we trekked as usual; late at night we crossed the bridge over the Valsch River.
On the following day a sad duty fell to my lot. A Kaffir had for the rape of a white girl been condemned to death by the Council of War, and I was called upon to prepare him for death. During all my professional duties I had never had the spiritual charge of a man condemned to death. Although he deserved his sentence, in my opinion more even than if he had been guilty of murder, I could only regard him in this his last hour as a fellow-man. All sense of condemnation was effaced, only pity remained—pity for his total helplessness. Although he acknowledged that he deserved death, he asked me if I could do nothing to obtain his pardon; and when I told him there was no hope, he still kept urging me to try and move the officers to inflict some other punishment. As a mouse in the claws of a cat struggles in vain to get free and yet continues struggling, so he, hoping against hope, struggled against the inexorable.
Could he not be released? At length he resigned himself. I spoke to him of Jesus and prayed with him. After a short time he was led away to his grave, and standing in it he laid his hand on my shoulder and repeated the words of a prayer after me. I hurried away from the spot, but before I reached the laager a volley announced that all was over in this world with that human being.
The following day was Sunday. We were not far from Ventersburg. Shortly after divine service some burghers went out against a patrol of the enemy, cornered them in a kraal and took twenty-four of them prisoners. Amongst them were some officers and one person who claimed to be a doctor. As, however, he was found armed, he was held prisoner along with the rest. We had not yet commenced our evening trek, when I received from someone a note written by the Rev. R. H. Daneel, informing me that my wife had gone to Maritzburg to my parents.
This was a comfort to me, for I had always been uneasy about her. I subsequently found that the English had turned her out of the parsonage and put her over the border. On Monday evening after sunset we again proceeded. It was a miserably long trek. A delay occurred at a ford, and it was half-past three in the morning before we arrived at the outspan, which the foremost waggons had reached at twelve o'clock. Before we could lie down to rest it was already half-past four, and the morning star was shining on the eastern horizon. A trek or two more brought us to Doornberg, and Commandant Hasebroek went with a number of men to Ventersburg. He found the town empty,—that is to say, there were no troops there,—and he levied his usual tribute on the shopkeepers of coffee, sugar, meal, and other provisions.