The Petticoat Commando Boer Women in Secret Service






   Not until it became positively known at Harmony, towards the middle of October, that the members of the Secret Committee had been sent away to Bermuda, did Mrs. van Warmelo and Hansie breathe freely again.


   The suspense of five full weeks was over at last, a suspense not to be described, and never to be forgotten by those who endured it.


   It did not seem possible to grasp the fact that those brave men had escaped with their lives, and Hansie, looking up at the stars that night, felt that she had learnt something of unspeakable value in the relief and gratitude with which that period of concentrated suffering had been followed.


   Carlo looked up at the stars too, for he invariably followed his young mistress's gaze, but on this occasion, seeing nothing unusual in that vast expanse, he stood up on his hind legs before her and gave a short bark of inquiry.


   "They have gone, Carlo," she said. "I know you won't believe it, but they have really gone, and if 'Gentleman Jim' knew anything about this, he would surely say, 'I 'spose their time hadn't come yet, little missie.' That's it, Carlo. Their time had

   not come yet. But they have left things in a fearful muddle, and we will have to work as we never worked before. The first thing to be done to-morrow morning will be——"


   She stopped suddenly—not even to her faithful Carlo could she confide the secret plan which she had made for reorganising and re-establishing on a safer footing the Secret Service of the Boers in town.


   She would form a new Committee, of five women this time, who would carry on the work on the same lines which had been adopted by the Secret Committee, and this plan, when she unfolded it to her mother that night, was received with warm approval.


   The first and last meeting was held at Harmony on October 15th and was attended by Mrs. Malan, Mrs. Armstrong, Mrs. Honey, Mrs. van Warmelo, and Hansie, who was appointed secretary.


   Bound together by the sacred oath of fidelity and secrecy, these five women vowed to serve their country and people, as an organised body of workers, as long as they had the power to do so.


   On the occasion of his next visit to the capital Captain Naudé was to be informed of the formation of the new Committee, but for the rest its very existence was to be kept a dead secret.


   Mrs. van Warmelo told the members that she was in a position to communicate with the President in Holland by every mail, and that the methods employed by her would be revealed to them after the With this they expressed themselves satisfied, willingly leaving the matter of sending away dispatches from the field in Mrs. van Warmelo's capable hands.


   It was felt that the greatest responsibility resting on them at the time was to have a suitable place of refuge ready to receive the Captain when next he entered the town.


   There was no house free from suspicion since the arrest of the Committee, except—except—Harmony!


   Harmony, surrounded as it was by British officers and their staffs, by British troops and Military Mounted Police—Harmony was at last chosen as the most suitable, the only spot in Pretoria in which the Captain of the Secret Service could be harboured with any degree of safety.


   It was arranged that he would immediately be brought to Harmony when he came again, and in the meantime the Committee would be on the look-out for an opportunity to send a warning and instructions out to him not to approach the houses hitherto frequented by him.


   For many weeks no spies belonging to his set came into town. No war news of any description reached his friends, except one day the information, conveyed we know not how, of the safe arrival at the Skurvebergen of young Els, the spy who had been fired upon and was missing from his companions on that eventful September 12th. That this news gave his relatives and friends great joy and relief after the intense anxiety gone through on his account, my readers will readily understand.


   The discovery of the White Envelope was not always a source of unmixed satisfaction.


   One of them, containing news of the betrayal and arrest of the Committee, and sent to Alphen

   in the ordinary way, failed to reach its destination. This caused the senders so much anxiety that for some time they did not dare risk the sending of another. The letter might have fallen into the hands of the censors and the secret be discovered by them, in which event they were probably waiting quietly to catch up further information.


   It may have been only a coincidence, but at this time the plotters at Harmony observed that the censorship on their post had been withdrawn altogether.


   They knew only too well what this meant! And their hearts sank when they thought of the White Envelope!


   It meant, good reader, that there was a most disquieting increase in the vigilance of the censor; it meant that their letters were opened by to throw them off their guard, and to encourage them to write with greater frankness to their absent friends.


   Mother and daughter felt the hair rising on their heads when they thought of one of their precious White Envelopes being subjected to a treatment of steam by the censor, and of his exultation on beholding the result.


   As the days went by, their dread of him and his evil machinations increased, for hardly a letter reached them that did not betray traces of his handiwork—or unhandiwork, for he was not always judicious in the quantity of glue used by him in reclosing the envelopes. He should have been a little more economical in the use of Government property if he really wished to hoodwink his enemies,

   and he would have saved Mrs. van Warmelo the trouble of damping the envelopes afterwards where they stuck, on the inside, to the letters.


   While the steaming process was being carried on at the General Post Office, no White Envelopes were taken to the censor, but they were posted at Johannesburg by friends, and in this way the distant correspondents were warned of danger, until it became evident that the steam-censorship had been withdrawn and the old reassuring order of things been established once more.


   A week or two later another White Envelope from Holland reached Harmony in safety, by which it was known that the secret was still undiscovered, but the fate of the missing envelope remained a mystery to the end, and was a constant reminder and warning to the conspirators to be careful in the use of their priceless secret.


   I am sure the Post Office officials had plenty to do during the war, but there is no doubt that their labours were considerably lightened by the "smugglers" who chose to dispense with the services of the censors entirely. And then we must not forget the activities of the spies and of their fellow-workers in town.


   Quite a large private postal service was carried on by them, as we all know, and every week, before the entry into Pretoria became so difficult and dangerous, hundreds of letters were carried backwards and forwards, to and from the commandos.


   One man in town was in the habit of receiving great batches of these smuggled letters, which he distributed to the various addresses, until one day

   he was very nearly caught. He had just received a packet of communications "from the front" and had opened it on his writing-table in his quiet study, when the doors were opened unceremoniously and some officials entered with a warrant to search his house. Carpets were taken up, walls were tapped, furniture was overturned and examined, books were removed from their shelves and every cranny inspected with the greatest thoroughness, but the pile of letters lying open on his writing-table, over which they had found him bending when they entered the room, was passed over without so much as a glance.


   This may sound a bit unreal, unlikely, but there are similar cases on record, which we know to be true beyond a doubt, and one of these I must relate, because it so closely concerned our friends at Harmony and so very nearly proved to be their undoing. They did not know it at the time, but were told by Mrs. Cloete, after the war, that she had sent all their uncensored, their "smuggled" letters, to her friend at Capetown, Mrs. Koopmans de Wet, with instructions to read and return them to her as soon as possible, which Mrs. Koopmans had done, with the alarming news that her house had been thoroughly searched for documents while the pile of letters was lying open on her writing-table.


   The authorities must have been "struck blind," she had said, for though they had overhauled the place and had taken away with them every suspicious-looking document, they had passed and repassed the papers on her table without a word and with nothing more than a superficial glance.


   This information had alarmed Mrs. Cloete so much that she had immediately packed every incriminating letter and all her White Envelopes into a tin, which she secretly buried, with the help of her German nurse, under one of the trees at Alphen.


   And there they, or what is left of them after ten years, still lie, for the spot has never again been found, although every effort was made to do so.