The documents sent out to General Botha, and referred to in Chapter XV, were connected with the report of the Consuls, but the very first thing sent to the commandos by Mrs. van Warmelo was a copy of the first petition, tightly packed in a walnut, one of a handful which she gave the spy, with instructions not to eat any of them on the road.
He also took a verbal message to the effect that though the condition of the Camps was bad, everything was being done in town to bring about the necessary improvements. Influential people were at work to make everything public in Europe, and the men in the field were urged to be brave and steadfast and of good cheer.
On July 29th Harmony was visited again by Mr. Willem Botha, bringing with him information of a disquieting nature.
In some mysterious way he had received a piece of paper from Mr. Gordon Fraser, brother-in-law to President Steyn, and prisoner of war in the Rest Camp in Pretoria, on which, in a disguised hand, was written a message imploring the Secret Service men to warn President Steyn and General de Wet that a certain man amongst them, a prominent official, was a traitor in their midst, paid by the enemy to betray their plans before they could be carried out.
This information made the conspirators very anxious, for it being full moon, there was no prospect of spies coming into town, and in the meantime incalculable mischief could be done. Neither was it possible to send any one out who had not been before and was ignorant of the route. The matter had therefore to be left until the next suitable opportunity came and Mr. Botha went home with a heavy heart.
Unlike his usual prudent self, Mr. Botha did not immediately destroy the slip of paper on which the warning was written, but folded it carefully and placed it between the tattered leaves of an old hymn-book.
How he paid for this small indiscretion, the only one of which he was guilty, with days of anxiety and despair, and very nearly with his life, we shall see as our story develops!
In the early days of August the troops encamped around Harmony could, if they had used their sixth sense, have divined an air of suppressed excitement about the place.
Expectation of some sort evidently charged the atmosphere. Visitors were, in fact, expected, for Captain Naudé and his secretary had arranged to come in for the report of the Consul, just before the new moon made its appearance, and now a faint crescent of silver in the heavens warned our heroines that their time was at hand.
Harmony had been chosen as a place of refuge, as the safest spot in all Pretoria, with so many troops around it!
For several nights in succession a fire was kept going in the kitchen until a late hour, and a plentiful supply of hot water kept in readiness for the warm baths which the visitors would so sorely need after their difficult and perilous journey.
Still they did not come, but on the morning of August 4th Mr. Botha paid an early visit, bringing with him the news that on the previous night five spies had reached the town in safety.
He did not tell where they were being harboured, it being one of the laws of the Secret Committee that names were not to be used needlessly, and that the people working for the Committee were not even to know about one another.
So rigorously was this law enforced that from beginning to end the van Warmelos had dealings with Mr. Botha only, and did not see the four other members of the Committee, nor even hear their names until——
The five spies had not come in as easily as usual. They had persistently been followed by the searchlights as they neared the town, but they were able to get through the barbed-wire enclosure in safety and had then separated and gone to their various homes, unobserved as they thought.
But one of them, a young man whom we shall call Harry, who was destined to play such a terrible part in the history of the Boer Secret Service, was followed home by three detectives, two of whom stationed themselves at the front door and the third at the back.
Fortunately when Harry became aware of his danger, he rushed out at the back.
The detective, whose name was Moodie, shouted, "Hands up, or I fire," but the young man drew his revolver with lightning-like rapidity and, firing twice, escaped from town under cover of the darkness.
The reported death of the detective caused a great sensation in the town next day, and it was not until many months after that we learned of the fate of the unfortunate man, not death, but mutilation worse than death—a ghastly wound below the heart and an amputated leg.
This event caused the British to enforce a stricter vigilance, and many houses were searched for the other spies, but without success.
The excitement in town did not abate for some time, and wherever Hansie went she was told what had taken place by people who would have been surprised indeed to hear that she was in possession of all the details, and even of documents brought in from General Kemp by those very spies.
The instructions were to see that the information contained in those documents reached the Consuls without their knowing how and when they had been brought into town, and for this purpose several copies had been typed and were slipped under the doors of the different Consulates while the inmates were asleep.
Any day between August 5th and 10th Captain Naudé said he would come, and each evening found Harmony prepared to receive him, but on the 9th Mr. Botha brought a note from the gallant Captain saying that he would be unable to partake of Mrs. van Warmelo's hospitality that month. A woman, whose name was unknown, had conveyed this letter to the Secret Committee. It contained no particular news except that August 8th had been celebrated as a day of thanksgiving for our victories, and the 9th, the very day on which the intimation was received in town, would be a day of humiliation for our many sins.
When this became known to the "inner circle," private prayer-meetings were immediately held in different houses in the town, while the men in the field held their day of humiliation under the open sky. In this way we worked together and supported one another spiritually, morally, and practically, in spite of searchlights and barbed-wire fences.
This was the first news received of the Captain's safe return to the commandos after that eventful visit in July, and his friends were thankful to receive it. Another source of thankfulness was the fact that he was not coming in that month, for the enemy was on the qui vive for more spies, and consequently the dangers were multiplying for the Boers. The reckless coming in and going out of irresponsible men became a source of real danger to the people who harboured them, and on August 12th Mr. Botha came again to warn Mrs. van Warmelo against having dealings with any spies except those sent by the Secret Committee.
"You will only find yourselves in jail or over the border," he said, "which would not be so bad if that were all, but it would ruin our chances of assisting the Generals."
He then reported that a young spy had come in on Saturday night and that he had been taken to Mrs. General Joubert's house the next morning while she was in church. The good lady was anything but pleased, on her return home, to find him there, for she had a houseful of people, and she was obliged to stow him into a tiny room, where he sat as still as a mouse, until he went back to commando. Not very cheerful for him, but a good lesson for the future!
Five or six men who tried to escape from town were captured near the Magaliesbergen and placed in the Rest Camp, so Dame Rumour said at the time, but the truth of the story, briefly related, ran thus:
I have mentioned the nest of the spies in the Skurvebergen not far from Pretoria in the western direction.
This "nest" had been surprised and taken possession of by the English while five of the spies were in Pretoria, and they, cut off from their own people as they were, were unable to escape.
One or two attempts were made, but the men were fired on and they had to abandon the idea for the present.
The curious part of this story is that these men (one can hardly call them spies) were Pretoria men who had escaped to the Skurvebergen for the first time only three weeks previously, and had gone backwards and forwards several times with small necessaries. One of the five, a man whose name I cannot mention here, for the sake of what is to follow, had been so often, and was so much at home both in Pretoria and the Skurvebergen, that his dearest friends did not know to which part of the country he really belonged!
Well, he was in a nice predicament now!
The house in which he was being harboured, with one of his friends, was unfortunately suspect. He could not remain there, neither could he escape from town.
Some one came to Harmony in great distress. What was to be done with those two men? To what place of refuge could they be moved that night? The visitor looked imploringly at Mrs. van Warmelo as if he expected her to offer Harmony, but she, mindful of Mr. Botha's warning, did nothing of the kind.
"Death is staring them in the face," the visitor continued. "I don't know what to do!"
Hansie, who knew the visitor well and trusted him implicitly, then pleaded with her mother—to no avail, Mrs. van Warmelo remaining firmly obdurate, and saying distinctly, for the edification of her visitor, "I have never harboured a spy, and I hope I never shall."
When the good man had departed, in sore disappointment, Hansie grumbled a good deal and said it was all very fine to assist these Secret Service men when there was no danger in doing so, but her mother took no notice of her for the rest of the day, and subsequent events proved that she had acted wisely in refusing to harbour men unknown to her.
What became of them at the time she did not know, and a few weeks elapsed before the crushing sequel to this escapade became known.