That there is more than one man of the name of Jan Celliers in South Africa I know, but there is only one Jan Celliers who can be honoured by the title "Poet and Patriot," and that is the remarkable personality of our friend in Pretoria, J.F.E. Celliers.
I have chosen him as the subject of this chapter, not so much because of the important, I may almost say revolutionary part he has played in the building up of South African literature since the war, as on account of the unique patriotism displayed by him throughout the war under circumstances of the severest test and trial.
How he, after active service in the field since the beginning of the war, came to be locked up in Pretoria as an unseen prisoner of war, an unwilling captive between the green walls of his suburban garden, when the British took possession of the capital on that stupefying June 5th, 1900, we shall briefly relate in this chapter.
Mr. Celliers' experience was that of many good and faithful burghers.
The news of heavy Boer losses, the desperately forced march of the British troops from Bloemfontein to Pretoria, the crushing blows in quick succession, the departure of the Boer Administration from the seat of government, the demoralisation of the scattered forces, and the painful uncertainty of what the next step was to be—these things, combined with the fact, in Mr. Celliers' case, of having no riding-horse or bicycle on which to escape from the town, caused him to be surprised by the wholly unexpected entry of the British forces into the capital. Just a brief period of dazed inaction, a few hours of stupefied uncertainty, and he found himself hopelessly cut off from every chance of escape.
He planned escape from the beginning, for conscientious scruples forbade his taking the oath of neutrality. Of the oath of allegiance there was no question whatever.
There was nothing for it but to keep himself hidden until an opportunity for escaping to his fellow-countrymen in the field presented itself.
The first three weeks were spent in the garden, but it soon became evident that listening ears and prying eyes were being paid to discover his whereabouts, and closer confinement was found necessary. Thereafter he sat between four walls, reading and writing during the greater part of the day, keeping a watchful eye on the little front gate through a narrow opening in the window-blind and disappearing, through a trap-door, under the floor as soon as a soldier or official entered the gate.
When darkness fell he left his cramped hiding-place, and gliding unseen through the house and yard, this weary prisoner occupied himself with exercises for the preservation of his health, running, jumping, standing on his head, and plying the skipping-rope vigorously, under the protecting shadows of the dark cypress trees.
The weeks went by, broken once by the intense excitement of a visit of one of the burghers from the field.
Mrs. Celliers' brother, M. Dürr, had crept into town at dead of night between the British sentinels on a dangerous mission for the Boers. A short week he spent with his brother-in-law, sharing his confinement and making plans for his escape. Then he was gone, and the old deadly monotony settled over the house once more.
July went by, and August was nearly spent when at last an opportunity presented itself, and Mr. Celliers, in woman's garb, bade wife and children a passionate farewell, not to see them again for nearly two years.
With a cloak over his shoulders and a high collar concealing his closely cropped hair, his wife's skirt on, and a heavy veil covering a straw hat, he stepped boldly into a small vehicle standing waiting before his gate and drove through the streets of Pretoria. For the time at least he too belonged to the "Petticoat Commando." Mrs. Malan was in the cart, and had been sent by Mrs. Joubert to escort him through the town.
The disguise was taken before a thought could be given to the possible consequences of such a step. Spurred by the heroic attitude and fine courage displayed by his wife, Mr. Celliers lost not a moment in availing himself of the long-looked-for opportunity.
The thrilling adventures and hairbreadth escapes he went through in that memorable flight for duty and freedom will no doubt be found accurately recorded in his book on the war, which I know to be "in the making" at the present moment. Suffice it to say that he reached the farm of a friend near Silkatsnek in safety, where, he had been informed, he would find Boer commandos in the neighbourhood.
Disappointment awaited him, however. The commando had withdrawn to the north, followed closely by thousands of British troops whose proximity to the farm made it dangerous, not only for him, but for the people who harboured him, to remain there longer than one night. A farm-hand, a trusted native servant, was asked to undertake the task of escorting Mr. Celliers to the Boer lines. After some hesitation he consented. The risk was great, but the promise of £20 reward when the war was over acted like a charm, and the two set forth before break of day on their perilous adventure.
Here and there the tiny light of an outpost on the open field warned them to make a wide détour. The crackling of the short burnt stubbles of grass under their feet caused them to hold their breath and listen with loudly beating hearts for the dreaded "Halt! Who goes there?"
When the light of day began to break over earth and sky, the Kaffir, in evident anxiety, warned the Baas to hide in a large dense tree while he, the Kaffir, went on ahead to reconnoitre. He departed—not to return again, base coward that he was, and the unfortunate man in the tree waited for hours until it dawned on him that he had been deserted at the most critical moment. He stepped from his hiding-place, quickly deciding to walk nonchalantly forward, the open veld leaving no possible means of pursuing his way under cover.
He passes many isolated homesteads, some ruined and deserted, others inhabited by aged people, delicate women, and little children only. One and all they shrink from him when he relates his story. They do not trust him—he may be in the employment of the British, a trap set for the unwary; their homes are closed to him. He pursues his way wearily. What is that approaching him in the distance? With straining eyes he is able to distinguish a group of horsemen coming towards him, and with lightning-like rapidity he turns from his course and jumps into the washed-out bed of a small rivulet flowing by. A group of startled Kaffir children gaze at him in astonishment. The riders come in clear view—not horsemen, but a number of Kaffir women with earthenware pots on their heads. These they fill with water, and mounting their horses depart the way they came.
With renewed hope and thankfulness at his heart our traveller resumes his course in the lengthening shadows of the short winter afternoon. At last he reaches a German mission station.
No refuge for him here! For the inhabitants are "neutral," but he is informed that a few days before 20,000 British troops had passed that way in a northward direction, in hot pursuit of the Boer commandos fleeing to the Waterberg district. The benevolent old missionary directs him to a small farm in the neighbourhood where a Boer woman lives alone with her little children. Perhaps she can give him some idea of the safest route for him to take. But no, the woman turns from him in extreme agitation, refuses to answer his questions, and is so evidently distressed at his appearance that he turns away and withdraws to the veld to think. What now? What now?
He is sitting on the outskirts of the great bush-veld, that endless stretch of forest-growth, dense and dark as far as the eye can reach. Shall he enter that, unarmed, without provisions or water and totally ignorant of the direction to take? He shudders. The blackness of the night is creeping over the scene, and over his soul desolation and despair.
"I must return to the mission station," he decides at last. "Surely they will give me refuge for the night!"
Slowly he drags his weary limbs across the veld, hesitatingly he presents himself, falteringly he proffers his request. A moment's hesitation and the family circle opens to receive him, its members crowd round him with words of comfort and small deeds of love. They are not doing right, but they will do well. Nothing is left undone to restore and refresh the exhausted fugitive, who soon finds himself in a perfect haven of domestic happiness and luxury.
As the evening wears on, the small harmonium is opened, and while the younger members of the family are singing sweet part-songs together, our hero turns over the leaves of a small book he has found lying on the table, a book of German quotations. His eyes are attracted by the following lines by Dessler:
Lenkst du durch Wusten meine Reise,Ich folg, und lehne mich auf DichDu gibst mir aus der Wolken SpeiseUnd Tränkest aus dem Felsen mich,Ich traue Deinen Wunderwegen,Sie enden sich in Lieb und Segen,Genug, wenn ich Dich bei mir hab.
They are like balm to his troubled soul, and he commits them to memory for future use. God knows the future looks desperate enough to him, for he feels that he cannot remain in this haven of rest. Consideration for the safety of his kind friends forbids this. He soon departs, having heard that, for the present at least, the western direction is open to him, and, in taking this, his tribulations begin afresh.
Unused to exercise as he has been during the long months of his confinement, this traveller, in pursuing his course with so much patience and steadfast determination, now finds himself hardly able to walk. The tender feet are swollen and bleeding to such an extent that he finds it impossible to remove his heavy boots. Halting, stumbling, he continues on his way.
By good fortune he meets with another Kaffir guide, who leads him to a small Kaffir hut and revives him with a draught of Kaffir beer. A few moments' rest, and they are on the way again.
The day was far spent when they reached a Kaffir kraal, and here Mr. Celliers sank down in agony of mind and body, too great for words. More Kaffir beer was respectfully tendered to him and he drank it gratefully, meanwhile watching with dull interest the Kaffir babies, jet black and stark naked, except for a small fringe of blue beads about the loins, as they crept around him, like so many playful kittens.
He was not long allowed to rest, the good guide urging him to make a final effort, and encouraging him with the assurance that he would find a farm not far distant, the home of Mr. Piet Roos, of Krokodil Poort.
This goal was reached that night, and a cordial welcome given to the poor exhausted traveller, although he was warned that he could by no means consider himself safe on the farm, as the British passed it nearly every day. Nigh three weeks he spent there, taking refuge under the trees of an adjacent hill by day and sleeping under the hospitable roof by night. As time went on and the visits of the Khakis became rarer, he became more at ease, and often worked with the farmer and the women in the fields, helping them to dig sweet-potatoes, and assisting his host in the work of sorting, drying, and rolling up the leaves of the tobacco-plant. He also became an expert in the art of making candles, and took active part in the other small industries carried on in that frugal and industrious household, and the evenings were spent in poring over maps, geographical and astronomical, which his host happened to possess. Many were the questions put to him, and long the discussions about worlds and suns and planets, while the busy fingers plied and rolled tobacco leaves, but these discussions generally ended in a sigh, a shake of the head, and an unbelieving, "there must be something solid under this earth," from the sceptical host.
The time was now approaching for the fulfilment of his heart's ambition, but there is still one small incident to relate before we leave our hero. One day, while he was still on the farm, he was passed by a Kaffir, whom he questioned as to his destination. The native replied that he was on his way to Pretoria, and the happy thought occurred to Mr. Celliers to ask this native to let his wife know that her husband was in perfect safety.
Now the remarkable part of this incident was, that that unknown native took the trouble to deliver his message faithfully and conscientiously, and it was only after the war that Mr. Celliers heard from his wife that she had received news of his successful escape from a strange Kaffir, who said he had been sent by her husband. This is a striking instance, well worth recording here, of the sagacity and fidelity of some members of the heathen tribes.
It was on September 13th that unexpected deliverance came in the shape of a Boer waggon in search of green forage for the horses on commando. Mr. Celliers instantly decided to accompany the waggon back to the lager, and prepared himself for departure that very day. Tender, grateful leave was taken of the good friends who had harboured him so long, and he drove away, seated, with his few worldly possessions beside him, on the top of a load of green forage.
The next day he arrived at the lager of Commandant Badenhorst's commando on the farm Waterval near the "Sein koppies," and now we close the chapter with the following words, which I have translated from his diary:
"The crown has been set on my undertaking. God be thanked, I find myself again amongst free men, with weapon in hand. For the first time in the past four months I feel myself secure. There is no one, on my arrival, who gives one sign of interest or appreciation; one burgher even asks me why I had not rather remained in Pretoria.
"This stolid and philosophic view of life is characteristic of the Boer and certainly does not discourage me.
"Excitement and enthusiasm do not appear to be the children of the great solitudes, the slumbering sunlit vastnesses; nay, rather do they spring from the unbroken friction of many spirits, sparks bursting from the anvil of the great, restlessly driven activity of the world."
Mr. Celliers remained in the field until the war was over.