Events moved quickly in those days.
The conspirators had hardly had time to recover from the shock of the recent arrests, they were just beginning to wonder what would happen if their unsuspecting friends from commando walked into the pitfalls prepared for them, racking their brains for plans to avert such a catastrophe, when the very thing they feared took place.
Instead of the familiar figure of Willie Botha coming up the garden path with news, Mrs. Malan drove up with Jannie Joubert's fiancée, Miss Malan.
Their appearance at Harmony brought all that had happened most forcibly to the minds of the stricken inmates, filling them with the sense of acute loss; and when they heard what their visitors had to tell, four women more forlorn would have been hard to find.
In short sentences Mrs. Malan told how four young men, all ignorant of the fate of their fellows in town, had tried to come in from the High Veld, bearing with them dispatches from Captain Naudé to the President and to the Committee of spies in town.
These men had gone to and fro for months without a single encounter with outpost or guard, but on this occasion, when they reached the wire enclosure, they were unexpectedly met by a storm of bullets.
One of them, as he stooped to get through the fence, felt the hot air of a bullet passing under his nose.
He hastily gave the order to retreat over the "koppies" and across the railway line, thus entering Pretoria on the opposite side.
When they met again, before entering the town, one of them was missing!
Young Els had disappeared, and no one knew whether he had been shot or taken, or whether he had fallen into some hole and perhaps been so severely injured that he could not follow them. His comrades were in deep distress. To go back and search for him was impossible, so they entered the town at the utmost peril of their lives. Torn and bleeding, they slunk through the streets of Pretoria, avoiding the light of the electric lamps, and concealing themselves behind trees at the sight of every man in khaki, until they reached Mrs. Malan's house.
Their guardian angels must have kept them from going to Mrs. Joubert's house, as usual, that night.
Imagine their surprise and horror when they heard of the betrayal of the Committee, for the warning sent out to Skurveberg did not reach them, they having come from the High Veld.
The news of Jannie's arrest and of Mrs. Joubert's house having been searched, and now being so closely watched that they could not possibly take shelter there, came as a crushing blow.
True to her word, Mrs. Malan determined to shelter them that night, but the house being too dangerous a hiding-place, they were stowed away in Mr. David Malan's waggon-house, closely packed in one small waggon, and there they still lay when the van Warmelos heard of their arrival.
From the bosom of her dress Miss Malan produced the dispatches and a number of private letters.
The dispatch to the President Hansie offered to send by the first opportunity, without telling her friends that it would go by the very next mail per White Envelope. This was a secret she naturally could not divulge to her most trusted fellow-workers, although she could guarantee that the work would be carried out, and they had enough confidence in her to leave the matter in her hands.
The letter from the Captain to the Committee was left at Harmony to be read and destroyed. Needless to say, Hansie, with her mania for collecting war-curios, made a full copy of both letter and dispatch in lemon-juice before regretfully consigning them to the flames. It was hard to destroy original documents for which such risks had been run!
What was most disconcerting was to hear that the authorities, evidently aware that the men had come through in spite of having been fired upon, were searching for them in town. It was imperative that they should leave that day, or at least as soon as night fell, for the risk they ran was very great.
Hansie promised to think of some way of helping them to escape safely, and said she would see them in the afternoon.
The feeling of responsibility on her young shoulders was very great. There was no one to turn to, no man to whom this dangerous mission could be entrusted, except one, her young friend, F.
She thought of him and wondered whether she could confide to him a scheme which had been slowly forming in her mind.
That afternoon she was on the point of leaving for Mrs. Malan's house, with a packet of letters and newspapers, when two lady callers arrived at Harmony brimming with the news that the town was in a great state of excitement. Armed soldiers were patrolling the streets, men were stopped to show their residential passes, and every cab and carriage was held up for inspection.
The general opinion was that there were spies in town, for the lower part of the town and west of Market Street were cut off by a patrol, while a systematic search of the private houses was being carried on.
Hansie chafed at the delay, listening with impatience to their excited talk, and wondering what they would say if they knew that she was on the point of going to those spies with the parcel in her hands.
By a happy coincidence, when the callers had taken their departure, another visitor arrived—F., the very man she wished to see.
But he, too, was full of the excitement in town and did not notice the unusual anxiety in Hansie's manner.
"General Botha has come in 'to negotiate,'" he said. "The town is alive with soldiers, but there must be something else brewing at the same time, for every house is being searched, and a cordon has been drawn round some parts of the town. It is impossible for any one to get through from one place to another beyond Market Street."
Hansie's heart sank for a moment.
Then she said: "I have to go to town at once, F.; will you come with me? I have a great deal to tell you and we can talk as we go along. You remember you once said that I must come to you if ever I got into any trouble. Well, I am in serious trouble now—not for myself—but, tell me, have you your residential pass with you?"
He produced it.
She continued: "Then we are safe for the present. Let us sit in the Park while I tell you in what way I want you to help me."
They found a secluded spot under one of the trees in Burgher's Park, and there Hansie took him into her confidence, unfolding her plan to him.
"If, as you say, F., a cordon is being drawn around the houses that have already been searched, those three men may be cut off at any moment. They cannot wait where they are at present, no more can they show themselves on the streets without residential passes. If you can help me to borrow three passes for them, I myself will walk with them as far as the wire enclosure and bring the passes back to you."
F. whistled, called her "plucky," but thought the whole thing far too risky.
"You would all be taken near the wire fence," he said, "and what about the men who would be without their passes while you had them?"
"They must not show themselves," she said.
"And if they are found in their homes?"
"Oh!" she cried impatiently, "they must be willing to risk something too."
"Have you thought of any one?" he asked.
"Yes, I have thought of D. and G., if you will bring them to me. Fetch them, F. I'll go and tell the men to wait for the passes. You will find me at your gate."
"But then you would have only two passes, Hansie."
She looked earnestly into his eyes, and he turned away without a word.
He went off in one direction and Hansie in another, and when she reached Mrs. Malan's house she was told that the three men had decided to risk the dangers of the street and to leave immediately. In this they were impelled, not so much by the consideration of their own safety, as the thought of the perils to which they exposed the Malans by remaining in their house. When Hansie told them she was procuring residential passes for them, they held a short consultation and eventually decided to wait another half-hour. With passes in their pockets they would be comparatively safe.
Promising to come back immediately, Hansie rushed to F.'s rooms, where she met him coming through the gate with D. and G.
"F.," she whispered, "be quick. They are on the point of leaving."
He drew her aside and said: "I am very sorry, Hansie. The fellows refuse to lend you their passes."
"Refuse!" she echoed in miserable incredulity. "Refuse! oh Heaven, and this means life or death to those men! They cannot appear on the streets to-night without passes."
"It is a great thing to ask, Hansie. You cannot blame them."
"F., I must once again remind you of your promise. Help me now. I am not pleading for myself."
He drew his residential pass from his pocket and placed it in her hand, motioning her to go. She gave him a quick look of gratitude, but returned the pass with the words, "No good to me unless I have three. Think of something else."
He called to the two other young fellows who were standing moodily apart and ordered them to think.
They thought. Perhaps they would have been standing there thinking still, if F. had not suddenly burst out with:
"Look here, you fellows, it is not safe to stand out here like this, and we are losing time. Let us go into my room and talk this thing over."
They walked rapidly towards the house, where a number of bachelors lived together, and reached the room unobserved.
F. drew the blinds, locked the door, and placed Hansie in an easy chair, while he and D. rummaged in a writing-table for some papers. G. sat on the bed with his long legs stretched out in front of him.
The two young men were whispering together, bending eagerly over some papers they had found.
"This one will do," Hansie heard F. say, "but it will take some time."
"Don't you think I ought to go and tell the men to wait?" she asked.
"No, better not be seen walking in and out here. We will make haste!"
Ah, why did Hansie not obey the warning voice within, and go?
For the next ten minutes nothing was said. The men cut and glued and typed without a word, and the result, when it was placed in Hansie's hands, was a document exceedingly well-planned and put together.
This was what she read:
Military Governor's Office,
for J.W. Venter, G. Vermaak, and L. Erasmus to be out until midnight, on Secret Service.
Signed by MAJOR J. WESTON,
Assistant Military Governor.
What puzzled her at first sight was the small official crown above, undoubtedly authentic, and the unmistakable signature of the Major below; but on closer inspection, she observed that the part containing the original letter had been cut away from the centre, the top part with the heading and the bottom part with the signature being pasted down on the blank page underneath.
On the middle part of the blank sheet the "Special Pass" was typed, and the whole when completed, with the date plainly typed underneath, looked like a single sheet of paper folded in three.
Hansie shook hands with them all, and asking G. to go to Harmony to reassure her mother, she sped on her way to Mrs. Malan's house.
F. called out after her, "If you come back this way, Hansie, I'll wait for you and see you home."
"All right, thank you," the answer came.
It was now past 6 o'clock and nearly dark. Every one else was at supper, and Hansie flew through the deserted streets with apprehension at her heart.
She was met at the gate by Mrs. Malan, wringing her hands and crying out:
"Oh, where have you been so long? Why did you not come sooner? They've gone!"
Then Hansie felt inclined to lie down and die.
Fortunately there was no time for that.
There was still something to be done, and, with the precious paper clasped to her heart, she could at least pursue the men. Perhaps she could overtake them before evil should befall them.
"What direction did they take, and how many of them are there?" she asked.
"Four," Mrs. Malan answered. "One has a residential pass. If they are held up, the other three will escape while he pretends to be searching for it. Go over the Sunnyside bridge and call 'Jasper' when you see four men——"
Without waiting to hear more, Hansie turned and ran, stopping only a moment at F.'s gate to call out his name. She did not wait to see whether he had heard, but ran again, and he, sauntering towards the gate a moment later on the look-out for her, saw her flying form just disappearing in the darkness.
"Something has evidently gone wrong," he muttered, and he, too, in his turn began to run, pursuing the figure of the girl as she sped after the Secret Service men.
She did not stop when he caught up with her, pulling her arm through his, but ran on, telling him in brief sentences what had happened.
Every few yards she called, "Jasper! Jasper!" in the vain hope that this might bring the fugitives forward, should they have concealed themselves behind the trees along the road.
Poor Hansie was becoming thoroughly exhausted, when suddenly, as they neared the Sunnyside bridge, four men under the electric light became plainly visible.
"You must run again, Hansie," F. said, and putting his arm around her, he literally carried her along.
Alas! the figures proved to be four Kaffirs coming towards them, and, with a broken sob, Hansie realised that all their efforts were in vain.
It was no use running now.
Sunnyside was badly lit, and one could barely see two yards ahead, so the plotters walked slowly to Harmony, encouraging one another with the thought that the men must already be beyond the outskirts of the town.
"We have heard no shots, and that is a good sign," Hansie said, "for the men were armed, and in the event of a surprise they meant to fight for their lives."