The story of the petitions, related in the previous chapter, had, as I have said before, taken place during the time of Hansie's sojourn at Irene. She knew nothing about it at the time because, naturally, her mother's letters contained no hint of the agitation with the Consuls at Pretoria, and she was absorbed in her own "agitations" in the Camp, her stormy interviews with the Commandant, her hopeless struggles against disease and death.
If ever a Concentration Camp was mismanaged, Irene was, and the six volunteer nurses, not being paid servants, but having taken up their work for love and at no small sacrifice to themselves, left no stone unturned to bring about the necessary improvements.
How futile their poor little efforts were! How powerless they found themselves against the tide of wilful misunderstanding, deliberate neglect, unpardonable mismanagement!
The number of deaths in the Camps increased every day, and Hansie, wiping the hoar-frost from her hair when she woke, half-frozen, in her tent, wondered how many of her little patients had been mercifully released by death that night.
For always, when she resumed her work, there were childish forms stretched out in their last sleep.
One morning, when she found that there had been five deaths during the night, in her ward alone, she took the train to Pretoria, straight to General Maxwell's office.
"Come and see for yourself, General. The people are starving, and they lie on the cold ground with little or no covering. Fuel they have nothing to speak of, medical comforts are always out of stock——"
With a heavy frown he asked:
"Why are these things not reported to me?"
"I don't know," she answered miserably. "We thought you knew. We can do nothing with the Commandant——"
A great deal more was said on both sides, revelations, not to be repeated here, made by the unhappy girl, and the Governor's sympathetic face grew stern with righteous indignation as she proceeded.
"I will investigate the matter for myself," he said. "But you look ill—why don't you come home and take a good rest?"
"I am only sick with misery, General; but if you will speak to the Commandant and insist on better management in the Camp, we may still be able to save a great many lives. There is no time to lose. If the people are not provided with better food and warmer covering during this intensely cold weather, the mortality will be something appalling next month."
A few days later, one beautifully crisp and clear Sunday morning, General Maxwell and his A.D.C., Major Hoskins, rode over to Irene to pay the Camp a surprise visit—and a "surprise" it must have been indeed, of no pleasant nature, to the Commandant, judging by his black looks afterwards.
The General asked to see Miss van Warmelo and demanded to be shown through her ward, inspected her worst cases, visited the overcrowded tents. He seemed much impressed by the scenes he witnessed that day, and issued orders to the effect that all complaints from her ward were to be attended to promptly, and that a distribution of blankets and warm clothing should be made immediately.
There were no blankets "in stock" the day before, but they were produced on this occasion with remarkable alacrity.
The Governor inspected the foodstuffs and the small supply of medical comforts (which was always, I may say here, kept in stock for inspection, and was not touched for the use of the inmates of the Camp, when the stores ran out).
On leaving, the Governor said to Hansie with marked emphasis:
"I shall be obliged if you will make your complaints to me in future."
Her ward was now in a somewhat better condition, and she was preparing to leave for home for a month's rest and recreation.
Although there were never more than six volunteer nurses in the Camp at a time, there were quite as many again in Pretoria, waiting to take the place of those obliged to go home on sick leave, and one of them was immediately sent to take charge of Hansie's ward.
Tragic were the parting scenes witnessed in that ward next day, and, as Hansie laughingly extricated herself from the crowd, she promised to come back "very soon," little thinking that she would be in their midst again on the morrow.
The new nurse, an inexperienced girl, after having gone through the ward once with Hansie, quietly fainted away.
"Shall I stay?" Hansie asked her, when she had recovered.
"Oh no; I must get used to it. But what must I do when the babies are dying like that?"
"You must pray to God to take them quickly. Very little can be done to save them. Report your worst cases to the doctor regularly every day; then, at least, the responsibility does not rest on your shoulders."
It was terrible, leaving them all in such a state.
Arrived at Harmony, Hansie found a note from Mr. Cinatti asking her to come over to the Consulate immediately, because Dr. Kendal Franks, who was visiting Irene next day, wished to see her before he left.
She went at once, and found a dinner-party in progress at the Consulate, the German Consul, Baron Ostmann, the Austrian Consul, Baron Pitner and his wife, one of the directors of the Dynamite Company, and Dr. Kendal Franks. She was shown into a private study, where Mr. Cinatti joined her, in great excitement.
"Come in to dinner," he urged, but Hansie wished to see only Dr. Franks and said she would wait.
"Tell me," she said before Mr. Cinatti left her. "Is there any danger for my mother in connection with those petitions?"
"Oh no, my dear, I think not. I hope not. The penalty" (he said "penality") "would be very great. You won't mention it to Dr. Franks, will you?"
"Of course not," Hansie laughed, and when he flew in a few moments later, with a silver dish containing bon-bons, he whispered excitedly: "He's coming now. Be on your guard! Take some of these, they contain rum." Dear Mr. Cinatti, how he enjoyed an atmosphere of danger! How he revelled in secret adventures, and how he would have appreciated the conspiracies at Harmony, at a later date, if it had been possible for the van Warmelos to take him into their confidence!
There was an atmosphere of serenity in the courtly, kindly presence of the great doctor.
"Have you any objection to being cross-questioned?" he asked, producing a notebook and pencil.
"Not at all," she said.
"General Maxwell told me to make a point of visiting your ward. I am sorry you will not be there. Would it not be possible for you to go over to Irene with me to-morrow? I am leaving by the early train."
"I have no permit, and it is too late now."
"Oh, that is easily remedied."
A messenger was at once dispatched to General Maxwell's house, almost next door, and he soon returned with the necessary permits and a cordial note from the Governor, wishing them "good luck."
That was an eventful day at Irene!
The anxious face of the "new nurse" broke into a beaming smile when she saw Hansie on the scenes once more, the people crowding round her with their questions. Why did she come back? Was she going to stay? Didn't she go to Pretoria yesterday? Who was that with her? etc. Mothers pulled her aside and pointed in wordless grief to their tents, to what lay there in still repose since last night. Children clung to her skirts—"We thought you had gone for good."
"The people love you," the great doctor said.
"But not as much as I love them," the answer quickly came.
It was arranged that Dr. Franks should go through the hospital, the dispensary, and the store-rooms in the morning, with the matron and the doctors of the Camp, and that after lunch he should inspect some of the tents in Hansie's ward.
This arrangement suited her to perfection, for she wished, after she had greeted her people in the Camp, to write an important letter, destined for the north of Holland, for which she had had neither time nor opportunity for many weeks.
The doctor's "hour or two in the Camp" lengthened to three, very nearly four, and during the greater part of this time Hansie, sitting in the tent which had been hers, wrote, without lifting her head.
"How shall I get this away? The censor must not set eyes on this," she mused as she folded the closely written sheets.
She put the envelope into her handbag, and just then "the girls" trooped in from the Camp. Surprised greetings were exchanged and explanations made as they all went into the big marquee where the midday meal was being served.
The doctor was very hot and tired after his long visit of inspection, but highly satisfied with the number of notes he had made, and the meal passed off in animated conversation. When it was over, Dr. Franks and Hansie went through the long rows of tents in her ward—her "prize" tents she called them—and the doctor seemed much struck by the extreme poverty and misery of the inmates. In one tent two little boys were dying, and the distracted mother, when she heard the magic word "doctor," implored him to save them. She was a widow and these children were all she had. He knelt beside them and examined them with his strong and gentle hands, shaking his head. There was no hope.
"Your ward is in a shocking state. But things were not as bad in the dispensary and store-rooms as you made out last night," he said to her on their way to the station.
There was a touch of reproof in the kind voice.
"You saw the small supply which is always kept for inspection, doctor," she answered. "It is always there and is not touched when the stores run out."
His face wore a troubled look, but he said no more.
When they parted at the station he said he would report on his visit, to the Governor, and Hansie laughingly replied that she would report too.
"For you are a Briton and I am a Boer. General Maxwell must have two reports."
She found the Governor next day in the friendliest of moods and evidently satisfied when she thanked him for the improvements in her ward.
He told her that the Commandant, who had been at Irene when first she came there, was going round the country to inspect all the Camps and to write reports for him. Seeing the look of intense dissatisfaction on her face, he asked whether she did not think that Commandant —— would do it well.
"No, indeed," she replied. "I think I would do it a great deal better. Will you let me go round to all the Camps also, to write reports for you?"
She spoke in jest, but to her surprise the Governor immediately entered into the idea, saying that it would be a great help to him to know that he could rely on getting truthful reports.
"You must come and see me later," he continued. "I advise you to take a few weeks' rest before you begin this tour. Is there anything else I can do for you now, or, I should say, for your people, for I have done nothing for you."
"Not just now, thank you, General; but I will let you know when I am able to go round to the Camps, and when I take up my work again at Irene."
Suddenly she remembered the unposted letter in her handbag.
"But there is something else——" She hesitated.
"I have a private letter for Holland here. It contains no word about the war, but I cannot let it pass through the hands of the censor. May I ask you to send it for me? I can assure you——"
"With pleasure," he broke in. "I will see that it is dispatched safely."
"Thank you very much. Shall I tell you what it is about?"
"Oh no; I trust you."
He handed a piece of sealing-wax to her.
"What is this for?" she asked.
"To seal the letter," he replied; but she quickly answered, with a smile:
"Oh no; I trust you."
He gave her a long official-looking envelope, into which she placed her letter, and, when she had readdressed it, he closed it with the stamp of the Military Governor's office.
Now, this little scene could not have taken place a few months, or even a few weeks, later, but at the time Hansie had no secrets to conceal from the Governor, and she had no reason to feel the slightest qualm in asking him to do her this personal favour.
But the time was soon to come, however, when she remembered the incident of the uncensored letter with no small degree of discomfort—when she found herself in the midst of conspiracies against the enemy, conspiracies of a far more serious nature than the harmless "smuggling" hitherto carried on by her and her mother.
"He would never believe that that letter contained no war news, if he were to find out what we are doing now," she thought then. "This kind of thing must cease—no more favours from the enemy, and, if I can help it, no more interviews with the Governor. But there is this tour of inspection—no getting out of that, and I shall have to see a great deal of him. Well, as far as the Camps are concerned, I can always 'play the game' to him. That is a thing apart."
A few days after this interview with the Governor, Mr. Cinatti called at Harmony with the interesting news that General Maxwell had invited the entire Diplomatic Corps to spend a day with him at Irene.
"We are going to-morrow [July 13th]," he said. "Now, why are you not there?" looking dolefully at Hansie.
"Oh, why did I leave my little round tent at Irene Camp?" she wailed. "But I will give you a letter for Miss Findlay, Mr. Cinatti. She knows all my worst cases and she has many quite as bad in her ward. Ask to see her, and whatever you do, don't forget to ask for Dr. Neethling."
Dr. Neethling was the only Dutch doctor in the Camp, and he was seldom in evidence when there was any question of inspection. That Consular visit to Irene must have been quite an event. General Maxwell, Major Hoskins, and all the Consuls in a body went through the Camp and hospital, and made the usual inspection of foodstuffs and "medical comforts."
They were satisfied that great improvements had been made, but they did not see the volunteer nurses or Dr. Neethling, although Mr. Cinatti asked three or four times for Miss Findlay and all the Consuls asked to see Dr. Neethling. These good people were not forthcoming, and there was so very much to see that it was time for the sumptuous lunch, with which General Maxwell treated the Consuls at the Railway Station, before further questions could be asked.
On the return journey General Maxwell inquired of Mr. Cinatti what he thought of the Camps, to which Mr. Cinatti replied, with that quaint mixture of pathos and humour which characterised him:
"General, your tiffin was a beauty, but your Camp—was very sad!"
Mrs. van Warmelo laughed when Hansie repeated these words to her and said:
"Oh, you have no idea how funny he is," and then she related the following incident to her daughter with great relish:
After she had drawn up the first petition, she was out driving one afternoon with Mrs. General Joubert in the latter's carriage, going from house to house to get the signatures to the petition, and on the Sunnyside bridge they found the three inseparable Consuls, Aubert, Cinatti, and Nieuwenhuis, out for their daily constitutional, leaning over the railings and looking down into the stream below. Approaching the bridge from the opposite direction were Lord Kitchener and his A.D.C. on horseback, and the three parties met, as luck would have it, in the centre of the bridge.
"The Consuls took off their hats in greeting to the ladies in the carriage, and then turned in salutation to Lord Kitchener, but I wish you could have seen the look Mr. Cinatti gave me, Hansie, as he glanced from the document in my hands to Lord Kitchener's retreating form. It spoke volumes, and I had the greatest difficulty in preserving my gravity."