Thank God for the early rains!
After the long winter months, dry and dusty, terrific storms pass over the country, torrents of rain, lashing hailstones. The beautiful world is washed clean, and everywhere the moist brown earth gives promise of a plentiful supply of fresh young grass, which means food for the weary underfed horses on commando, and new life, new hopes to the men.
Only the middle of August and already the first summer rains are falling!
Thank God again!
The cruel strain of anxious thought for our heroes in the field can be relaxed for a moment, and we turn our energies with redoubled vigour and strengthened faith to the task at our hand. Heaven knows that we shall require all the courage we possess to face the impending disasters, of which the shadows have already fallen on our hearts.
One morning the disconcerting news reached Harmony that Mrs. Naudé's house had been surrounded by armed soldiers at break of day and that she had been taken away with her child, in a waggon, no one knew where.
The empty house was being closely watched.
Did the enemy really think that the sagacious Captain of the Secret Service would walk into the trap some fine evening, there to meet with certain destruction? Evidently, for the house was guarded night and day.
August 5th brought new sensation and fresh material for thought and conversation.
There had been a brief lull in the adventures, and all were of opinion that as long as this spell of vigilance lasted no spies would enter the town. It therefore came as a surprise when our little friend with the walking-stick was to be seen coming up the garden path of Harmony, wearing that air of happy mystery so familiar to his fellow-workers.
The spies had come at last, not the Captain himself, but his secretary, Mr. Greyling, with two other men named Nel and Els, on an important and extremely dangerous mission.
They had arrived too late to be brought out to Harmony, but they were staying with Mrs. Joubert, and, if they were successful in obtaining the help they required, their intention was to leave again that night.
At this point in the visitor's narrative, Hansie, who had been engaged in making butter, came in with an expectant look. Mr. Botha motioned her to draw nearer, and in hurried whispers, although there was no one in the room but themselves, told them that these men had been sent to procure a copy of the secret railway time-table, an official book containing full detailed information of the military trains, provision and ammunition—trains, in fact, laden with clothing and everything required by the military. The women looked at one another and smiled at the audacity of the request. They had never heard of such a time-table and might as well have been asked to send the moon to the front.
But their visitor was very grave.
This was no child's play, but a very serious matter, for a great deal depended on the securing of that book.
The horses on commando were in a very poor condition after the hard winter, and the men had no clothes to speak of. So it was absolutely necessary that they should have their stock reinforced by the capture of some of the enemy's trains.
Mrs. van Warmelo promised to do her best, but gave her visitor little hope of success.
Soon after he left, a carriage drove up with Mrs. Joubert, her son "Jannie," and her married daughter, Mrs. Malan.
Their mission was the same as Mr. Botha's, the secret time-table, and Mr. Jannie, as he drew Hansie aside, urged her to do all in her power to procure a copy of this valuable book. The same ground was gone over, with the same result, "We can but try." That whole morning was spent in seeing different people, trusted friends, on the subject, and everywhere Hansie and her mother were met with the same objections. Most people had never heard of this time-table, and those who knew of its existence, were convinced that it would be quite impossible to get a sight of it, as it was in the hands of officials only.
The afternoon again was spent in roaming disconsolately about the streets of Pretoria, weary and discouraged.
Suddenly Hansie exclaimed:
"Oh mamma, how stupid we have been! Why, we never thought of D. He is the only one who can help us. Let us go to him."
Mrs. van Warmelo's tired face beamed at her daughter.
"Of course, but I dare not go to him direct—that would be indiscreet indeed. Let us send some one for him."
"F.?" Hansie suggested.
"Yes, he would do."
They were walking rapidly to an office on Church Square, when they met the very man they were in search of.
"This is wonderful!" Hansie exclaimed. "We were just going to ask F. to call on you, as we have a great request to make."
Talking in rapid whispers, the trio walked across the Square. The man's face was inscrutable at first, but his curt and business-like way soon gave place to a look of thoughtful contemplation.
"This is about the most unheard-of request that has ever been made to me. I know the book exists, but I have never seen it—I shall have to think about this. When must you have it?"
"Before six o'clock this evening," Hansie answered.
"Will you leave me now?" he said. "I must think. If by any chance I am able to procure a copy, you will find it under your front door between 5 and 6 o'clock."
Well satisfied, the two ladies proceeded on their way home, when they were met by Consul Nieuwenhuis, who invited them to have tea with him at Frascati's.
Hansie looked at her mother.
"I think we have earned it—don't you?"
Mrs. van Warmelo nodded and laughed.
Arrived at Frascati's they found a regular gathering of the Consuls, gaily chatting while they partook of the good things set before them.
"Oh, mother!" Hansie said regretfully, when they had parted from their friends. "What a pity we could not tell them anything! How they would have enjoyed sharing our sensations! I can tear the very hair out of my head at having to keep all these adventures to myself!"
They then went to Mrs. Joubert's house to tell the spies that there was just a chance that one of the people they had seen that day would get the time-table for them.
Mrs. van Warmelo, with her usual prudent forethought, asked to see Mr. Greyling only, knowing that it was safer to deal with one man than with several, so she was shown into the drawing-room while he was being brought from some unknown back region, with much caution and bolting of doors and drawing of blinds. It was amusing, when he entered the room, to see him going straight up to Mrs. Joubert and shaking her heartily by the hand. As a matter of fact, these enterprising young men enjoyed her hospitality, slept under her roof, and partook of the food she secretly prepared for them without ever setting eyes on their hostess.
She was not supposed to know of their existence, and as she was close and silent as the grave, no one ever got anything in the way of information out of her.
It was good to see Mr. Greyling again.
He said that Captain Naudé was with General Botha near the Middelburg line and had been prevented from coming into town that month.
Very little fighting was being done on account of the poor condition of their horses after the severe winter. The men were in splendid health, and the same spirit of determination and courage which had always characterised them possessed them still.
Mr. Greyling and his comrades had come in under some difficulties. They had been escorted on horseback as far as Eerste Fabrieken on the North-east Railway, when they had nearly run into the enemy's lines. They altered their course and rode to Irene, hiding themselves and fastening their horses in a clump of thorn trees, where they remained until nightfall.
On their way to Pretoria in the darkness, Mr. Greyling's horse fell into a hole, throwing him out of the saddle, but his foot caught in the stirrup and he was dragged about forty yards, bruising his head and severely wrenching his ankle. Although by no means fit for the journey, he was determined to go back that night, because the friends who were waiting for him with his horse did so at the utmost risk of their lives. The best news he brought was that the Boers had retaken the Skurvebergen and that it was again the centre of the Secret Service. Three of the Boers had fallen there during the fight.
Although he fully appreciated the obstacles in the way of procuring a time-table, he said he felt he could hardly go back to the commandos without it. His instructions had been very explicit.
Whether she found the time-table at Harmony or not, Hansie promised to come back that evening, with the European and Colonial newspaper-cuttings, so eagerly sought after by the men on commando.
Arrived at Harmony at about 5.15, Hansie could conceal her impatience no longer, but, running up the garden-path, she threw open the front door with a flourish, and behold, a small flat parcel on the floor, a book wrapped carelessly in a bit of white paper! The secret time-table!
She only had it in her hands for a moment, but one thing she will ever remember, the slate-coloured cover and the thick red letters heavily scored:
For the use of officers and officials only.
The excited women looked at it as if fascinated, turning the leaves over slowly and murmuring blessings on his head.
"Look here," Mrs. van Warmelo whispered, "here we have the meanings of the different signals, and here the different engine-whistles are explained. Every 'toot' has a meaning, Hansie——" But Hansie had flown to her room to don her cycling dress, and was soon on her way, guarded by her faithful dog. On reaching her destination she was again shown into the drawing-room, but Mrs. Joubert came to her and asked in a whisper whether she would not like to go to the room.
Need I say that she jumped at the suggestion?
Away with caution, to the winds with prudence and reflection! Was not the mother safe at Harmony and her wise counsels forgotten?
Hansie was led silently through mysterious corridors into the open back-yard, by a mute figure in black.
This figure pointed to a door and disappeared, and at the same time another figure rose from Hansie knew not where, and stood sentinel over the gate leading into the street.
She ran up the steps and rapped smartly at the door, turning the handle after a moment and walking in, to the evident consternation of the three young men inside. There was a general scuffle, followed by a laugh of relief, when her figure became visible through the heavy clouds of smoke which filled the room.
Mr. Greyling came forward to meet her and introduced the other men, who shook her hand until it ached.
It was quite evident that the sight of a young lady was a wonderful and most welcome thing to them.
Hansie took Mr. Greyling aside and handed him the packet with strict injunctions not to mention her name on commando, for it was a well-known fact that there were traitors in the field, who lost no opportunity of conveying information to the British. She did not tell him how the book had come into her possession, although his surprise and curiosity were plainly visible, and the worst that could have happened, had he fallen into the hands of the enemy and turned King's evidence, would have been the betrayal of her name.
The other men were clamouring for a hearing, so she turned to them and inspected the huge brown-paper parcels containing clothing, etc., to which they drew her attention and which they were about to convey to the commandos.
One of them, with a look of comical despair, was shaking his head, while he counted the parcels on his fingers. The other showed Hansie how impossible it was for him to fasten his coat and waistcoat, for he had on three woollen shirts and three pairs of trousers, of different sizes. So had the other two, and Hansie could not refrain from expressing her amazement at their being so heavily laden on an expedition so perilous.
But, in high spirits, they laughed at her fears.
They had done the same thing before. One said it was his seventh visit, another said it was his third, and they so evidently enjoyed their adventures that one felt they were to be envied rather than pitied.
They parted in fun and high good-humour, but Hansie's heart was wrung with many a pang, and many a deep and earnest prayer for their protection was sent up by her that night.
"I wish you could have seen that room, mother," Hansie exclaimed as they sat in their cosy dining-room, discussing the events of the day. "It was filled with so much smoke that I could hardly breathe, and it was littered with papers and cups and plates. They wanted me to sit down and chat with them."
"I am surprised you did not," her mother retorted.
"Well, you see, I had no lamp and I was afraid I should be arrested, and besides, you would have been terrified to death, thinking I was in the hands of the English with that precious time-table."