The Petticoat Commando Boer Women in Secret Service






   If I may dare to hope that there are, among my readers who have followed me with so much patience through this book, some sufficiently interested in the heroine to desire information on what befell her in her future lot, I should wish to give to them just a glimpse or two into scenes as totally different from the events recorded in this volume as night is from day. And to do this freely, unreservedly, I must endeavour to forget my close connection with the heroine, a connection the thought of which has hampered and restricted me, from first to last, in choosing and rewriting the material from her diary.


   Her diary, as I have said before, had ended soon after her last adventure with the spies, never to be resumed again.


   I do not, however, write from memory in this brief chapter on her subsequent experiences, for I have before me for reference a pile of letters from her to her mother.


   Almost her last word when she left her native land was an injunction to her mother to preserve her letters for the future,—"for when I am married, mother dear, you will be my diary."


   Hansie's health gave way.


   Not in a week or a month, not in any way perceptible to those around her, but stealthily, treacherously, and relentlessly the fine constitution was undermined, the highly strung nervous system was shattered. This had taken place chiefly during the desolate and dark hours of the night, when, helpless in the grip of the fiend Insomnia, the wretched girl abandoned herself to hopelessness and despair.


   And the time was soon to come when she feared those dreadful waking hours even less than the brief moments of fitful slumber which overcame her worn-out, shattered frame, for no sooner did she lose her consciousness in sleep than she was overpowered by some hideous nightmare, and found herself, shrieking, drowning in the black waters of some raging torrent, or pursued by some infuriated lunatic or murderer, or enveloped in the deadly coils of some hideous reptile.


   Shuddering from head to foot after each of these most awful realities of the night, she was soothed and comforted by the tender hands of her distressed and anxious mother.


   Something had to be done, of that there was no doubt. Not even the strongest mind could have endured such a strain for any length of time, and that Hansie's reason was preserved at all I put down to the fact that she had never once throughout the war entertained the idea, the possibility, of the loss of her country's independence.


   The blow, when it came, found her so far from the scenes of her recent sufferings, as we shall see presently, that she was able to endure it, as one, far

   removed from the death-bed of her best beloved, is spared the crushing details, the cruel realities of that last parting scene.


   The thought of the strong heart across the seas, waiting to receive her, would have been of more support to her in those days had she known by experience what it could mean to a woman, tried as she had been, to place herself and all her grief in the protecting, understanding love of a good and noble man.


   But even this comfort was denied to her; in fact, the thought of her uncertain future, and her fear that the step she was about to take might prove to be a great mistake in her abnormal condition, were an added burden to our sorely tried and now completely broken-down patriot.


   Plans were made to send her out of the country.


   Her sister, Mrs. Cloete, who had for some months been trying to procure a permit to visit the Transvaal, was, after great trouble and inconvenience, successful in her endeavours and arrived at Harmony on Saturday, March 29th, 1902.


   What words from my poor pen can describe the emotions of that meeting?


   Even Hansie's diary has nothing to say except "let us draw the veil," but memory is strong and the bands of love and kinship are unbreakable, even under the adversities of long and bitter years—nay, rather are they strengthened by the threads of common woe, woven into their very fibre at such a time of bitter trial.


   The mother spent hours with her elder daughter, happy beyond power to express, relating her

   experiences and adventures, comparing notes and making plans for their future.


   All that month of April was filled with rumours of an early peace, and hopes were buoyed up with the certainty that "peace with honour" would and could be the only termination to the peace conferences. Incredible as it may seem to some of my readers, the Boer opinion was that England was about to end hostilities and that, under certain terms, the independence of the two Republics would be assured.


   No reliable information reached our friends at Harmony, for the activities of the Secret Service had ceased entirely—at least, as far as the town was concerned.


   Uncertainty, excitement, expectation filled the air, reaching their height on April 12th, when the news of the Boer leaders' arrival at the capital spread like wild-fire through the town.


   Steyn, Botha, de Wet, de la Rey, Reitz, and a host of others were amongst "their own" again, under circumstances of unique importance. They were not allowed to mix freely with the crowd, but kept in a state of highly honoured captivity in the beautiful double-storied house known as "Parkzicht," opposite Burghers Park, well guarded night and day by armed patrols, who kept the crowd at bay with a friendly "Move on, please," when they touched the limit of their beat.


   Mrs. van Warmelo and her two daughters, like so many other citizenesses, lost no opportunity of walking in the neighbourhood of "Parkzicht," and they were fortunate beyond their wildest hopes in being greeted by the Generals on more than one occasion.


   One day as they were passing they observed the familiar figure of General Botha on the balcony.


   They waved their handkerchiefs and there was no doubt about his recognition, for he took off his hat and waved it, kissing both his hands to them.


   (General Botha it was who, after the war, said to Mrs. van Warmelo, clasping her hand and looking earnestly into her eyes:


   "You have done and risked what even I would not have dared.")


   After six or seven days in Pretoria the Boer leaders left for their commandos, to deliberate, with what result Hansie did not know until nearly two months later in mid-ocean, where at a distant isle the news of the declaration of peace was made known to her.


   The three women at Harmony now turned their thoughts into another channel.


   The mother being far from well herself, arrangements had to be made to leave her in the companionship of some suitable and congenial woman, until her "boys" came home—one from the front, if he were still alive, the other from captivity. A girl friend offered to take Hansie's place at Harmony and promised not to leave Mrs. van Warmelo until the country was in a settled state again.


   This was Hansie's only crumb of consolation during those last days at home.


   Many difficulties were made about her permits when she applied for leave to go to Holland, and many were the questions asked, her interview with General Maxwell being the least unsatisfactory when she told him of her approaching marriage.


   "You may go with pleasure," he had said; but a

   few days afterwards Hansie received a letter from the Provost-Marshal, saying that "the present regulations do not allow burghers or their families to leave South Africa."


   Hansie wrote to Lord Kitchener, but received no reply, and it was nearly the middle of May, after some weeks of uncertainty, harder far to bear than trouble of a more decided character, when she and Mrs. Cloete left the capital for Cape Colony.


   Hansie's last words in her diary are:


   "There is quite a history connected with the procuring of my permits, which I shall relate another time. I am too tired


   Words significant of what the girl had endured in parting from her mother and leaving her beloved country at a time so critical!


   On an ocean-steamer she found herself at last—alone, for in that crowd there was no face familiar to her to be seen.


   She mixed freely with the crowd; she sought, in the games with which these voyages usually are passed, to forget—to forget; but the nights of sleeplessness remained—her waking terror, with which she was consumed.


   Two men there were who proved sympathetic, one a Scotchman, the other an Englishman—both anti-Boer and sadly misinformed when first she met them, both "converts" by the time they reached their native shores.


   Sitting at table she listened intently to the conversations on the war—the war, the never-ending war. On no occasion did she breathe a word of what

   she knew, of what she felt, until one day at dinner a young English lieutenant, "covered with glory" and returning home a hero of the war, enlarged on the services rendered by one brave officer, well known by name to Hansie.


   "It is not only what he achieved with so much success in the field," he continued. "I am thinking now of those two years he spent in the Pretoria Forts before the war, as a common labourer, doing menial work with other men, and secretly making plans and drawing charts of the Pretoria fortifications. Every detail was made known to our military before we went to war."


   Exclamations of surprise, a murmur of admiration, ran along the table.


   Hansie waited until there was a lull, and then she asked:


   "The work carried out by him, was it done under oath of allegiance to the Transvaal Government?"


   There was one moment's painful silence before the young lieutenant answered, with a laugh:


   "Of course; it could not possibly have been done otherwise—but all is fair in love and war."


   "War?" Hansie exclaimed—"I thought you said that this was done some years before the war."


   "Yes, but we all knew what things were leading to!"


   This incident was the first hint among the passengers that she was not one of them.


   At first they looked at her askance, but as the days went on and the girl steadfastly avoided every allusion to the war, refusing to express her opinions to any one, except the two men mentioned above,

   the feeling of discomfort passed, and she was once again included in the pastimes of the ship's company.


   As they were nearing Teneriffe the longing for news, for the latest cables from England and South Africa, possessed every soul on board—and now I find that, search as I will, within the recesses of my mind, for words with which to describe adequately such scenes, brain and hand are powerless.


   There was peace in South Africa—peace "with honour" for England, peace and defeat for the Boers!


   In a moment the ship's crew went mad, as the wild cheering rolled over the waves.


   Hansie stood stupefied until (and strange it is that at a time like this an insignificant detail should stand out in sharp relief against the background of her dulled sensibilities) an hysterical woman ran up to her with outstretched hands, crying:


   "Oh, my dear, my dear, let me congratulate you! Let us shake hands!"


   The girl, thus taken by surprise in all that crowd, recoiled in shuddering distress, while, with hands clasped convulsively behind, she murmured:


   "Oh, I could could


   A wave of deep resentment passed over the ship's passengers, and hostile eyes looked on her frowningly.


   That night, as the good ship was ploughing the waters on her way once more, a solitary figure stood on the deserted decks.


   In the saloons great bumpers of champagne were passing round, while the strains of "God save the

   King" and "Rule Britannia" floated over the ocean waves.


   A man in search of her, fearing perhaps, I know not what, approached the drooping figure of the girl, and pressed her hand in silent sympathy.


   "There is no peace!" she said. "Do you think I believe these lying cables? The Boers will never yield. If you knew what I know, you would take these reports for what they are worth. I have been trying to think what it all can mean, and this is the conclusion I have come to. If it be true that peace has been proclaimed, then the Boers have preserved their independence, and this last fact has been excluded from the cables in view of the approaching Coronation. But my own conviction is that there is no peace at all, but that these cables have been sent to reassure the English public, and to make it possible to celebrate the crowning of the King in a splendour unclouded by the horrors of the South African war. Believe me, when the Coronation is over you will hear of a mysterious renewal of hostilities."


   The man was silent, troubled. He had not the heart to argue with the girl, perhaps he thought, and rightly thought, that this strange illusion of the brain, this confident belief in her own convictions, would help to tide her over the first days to follow.


   "I cannot understand," he said, "how Mrs. —— could have asked you to shake hands with her."


   "Oh, I was wrong," Hansie said. "She meant it kindly. How could she understand? I will apologise—to-morrow."


   It had been arranged that Hansie should spend a

   few days in London to see some friends before proceeding to Holland.


   She found the mighty metropolis in the throes of preparation for an event of unparalleled magnificence.


   Every sign of splendour and rejoicing was a fresh sword through the heart of our sorely tried young patriot.


   The people with whom she stayed, old Pretoria friends, had not an inkling of what was passing in her mind.


   Their warm and loving greetings, their loud expressions of delight that the war had come to an end at last, were so many pangs added to her grief.


   "You will come with us to the Coronation?" her hostess said; "we have splendid reserved seats, and this event will be unparalleled in the history of England."


   Again the unfortunate girl found herself recoiling, taken by surprise; again she said:


   "Oh, I could Not to save my life!"


   "Not go to see the Coronation! I am surprised at you. Very few South African girls are lucky enough to benefit by such an opportunity. I must say I think it very narrow-minded of you. You disappoint me. The war is over now, and while we are all trying to promote a feeling of good-fellowship you nourish such an unworthy and narrow-minded spirit."


   Narrow-minded, unworthy!


   The iron entered deep into her soul; and when she looks back now and takes a brief survey of what she suffered throughout those years, that moment stands

   out as one into which all the fears, the hopes, the agonies of one short lifetime had been crowded.


   Sometimes the human heart, when tried beyond endurance, will reach a point where but a trifling incident, an unkind word, is needed to break down life's stronghold.


   This point our heroine had reached.


   Something passed out of her soul, an undefinable something of which the zest for life is made, and as she felt the black waters of despair closing over her she almost gasped for breath.


   She turned away.


   "You will never understand. I think it very kind of you to make such plans for my enjoyment, but—to the Coronation of the English King I will not Leave me here—I have some writing to do—no need to be distressed on my account. My one regret is that my presence here, at such a time, should be a source of so much painfulness to us both."


   With cold courtesy the subject of the approaching Coronation was dropped, until the next day, when the appalling, the stupefying news of the postponement of the Coronation spread through the hushed streets of the great metropolis.


   The King was dying, was perhaps already dead. The King had undergone a critical operation and his life still hung in the balance.


   The King could not be crowned.


   Already the black wings of Death seemed to be stretched over the mighty city, with its millions and millions of inhabitants. The multitude was waiting in hushed expectancy, in breathless suspense.


   Hansie, walking through the streets with one of

   the men whose sympathy on board had been of such unspeakable comfort to her, never felt more unreal in her life. Her mind was in a maze, she groped about for words with which to clothe her thoughts, but groped in vain, for even the power of thought had been suspended for a time.


   Her companion, glancing at her face, asked suddenly, curiously:


   "Would you be glad if King Edward were to die?"


   There was a long pause, while the girl strove to analyse her feelings.


   At last she answered slowly, simply, truthfully:


   "No; I would be sorry."


   And in these words, good reader, when I think of them, I find a certain solution to the problem of her behaviour on many occasions when brought into close contact with her country's enemies.


   There was never anything personal in the most bitter feelings of resentment and hatred of her country's foes, and never at any time did she belong to the ranks of those among her fellow-patriots who deemed it an unpardonable crime to recognise and appreciate the good qualities possessed by them.


   A love of fair-play characterised her, even as a child, and it is certain that the cruel circumstances of the war developed this sense of justice to an abnormal extent, often bringing upon her, in later years, misunderstanding and distrust from those who should have been her friends.


   It is June 28th, a glorious, cloudless summer's morn.


   Speeding swiftly, almost silently, cutting its way

   through the calm, blue waters of the English Channel, a passenger-boat is fast approaching Holland's shores.


   The hour is early, and of the few figures moving on the pier, one stands apart, watching intently, as the ship draws near.


   He waves his hat, he has recognised the figure of the girl who stands on deck and waves her handkerchief in response to his greeting.


   His strong hand clasps hers; and now the discreet reader need not avert his eyes—no need here to "draw the veil"—for Hansie had written from London to this tall, broad-shouldered man:


   "What is left of me is coming to you now, but we must meet as friendly until we are both certain of ourselves."


   How long this "friendly acquaintance" lasted it is difficult to say, for there is a difference of opinion on the point.


   She says, not less than sixty minutes.


   He asserts, not more than thirty-five!


   The exquisite serenity of her father's native land, especially on such a perfect day in midsummer, had never seemed to her so sweet.


   Here, indeed, she felt that peace could come to her at last.


   But not yet—not yet.


   Strong emotions of a different kind awaited her, the meeting of beloved friends and relatives, after seemingly endless years of pain, proving no less trying than the introduction to a large circle of future relatives and friends.


   Hansie had to be "lionised" as heroine of the war, and this was done in a whole-hearted, generous way which was a constant source of wonder to her.


   She was "carried on the hands," as the Dutch saying goes, by all who had the remotest claim on her.


   Functions were arranged for her, receptions held, to which white-haired women and stately venerable men came from far to shake her hand, because she was a daughter of the Transvaal, nothing more—not because of what she had done and endured, for this was known to only one or two.


   Old friends from South Africa there were in scores, and for the time the State of Holland was transformed into a colony of Boers, which seemed complete when the Boer leaders, Botha, de Wet, and de la Rey, arrived with their staffs. Then it seemed as if the people of Holland lost their heads entirely, and scenes such as those which took place daily in the streets are never to be forgotten by those who witnessed them.


   All this, though wonderful, was not the best thing for our heroine, who was "living on her nerves," though in a different way, as surely as she did during those cruel years of war.


   Added to this she was frequently tried beyond endurance by the questions:


   "Why did the Boers give in? How could the Boers give in and lose their independence?"


   One conversation in particular was burnt into her brain.


   "Was it the Concentration Camps?"


   "No," the answer came slowly, "no, it was not the Concentration Camps. The high mortality was

   past, the weakest had been taken, and there was no cause for anxiety for those remaining in the Camps. Their rations had been increased and improved—there was no more of that first awful suffering."


   "What was it, then? The arming of the natives?"


   The answer came more slowly:


   "No, it was not the arming of the natives. Their forces were more scattered, for they were chiefly employed in guarding the railway lines, in protecting stock and guarding block-houses. Though their addition to the British ranks undoubtedly weakened our strength to some extent, their inborn respect for the Boer would have prevented them from ever rendering valuable services to the English. How we laughed, my sister and I, when, on the railway journey from Pretoria to Cape Town, we saw the line patrolled by hundreds of these natives, with gun in hand, stark naked except for a loin-cloth and a bandolier! So much waste of ammunition! No, the arming of the natives would have been the last thing to induce the Boers to surrender."


   "Then it seems to me incomprehensible! surely death were preferable to defeat!"


   "Yes, a thousand times; but you forget the National Scouts—the Judas-Boers. They broke our strength. Not by their skill in the use of arms, not by their knowledge of our country and our methods—no!"


   "They broke our strength by breaking our ideals, by crushing our enthusiasm, by robbing us of our inspiration, our faith, our hope——"


   With averted eyes, and seemingly groping for one last ray of light, the man continued:


   "But where were your heroes—your heroes of Magersfontein, Spion Kop, and Colenso?"


   "Where were our heroes?" the girl echoed bitterly. "In their graves—in our hospitals—in captivity! Ever foremost in the field—one—by one—they fell—— 'But the remnant that is escaped of the house of Israel shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward.'


   "Although, under the shadow of this great national calamity, we cannot see it now, there is hope for our sad South Africa. It is too soon to speak of a united race, but the time will surely come when, in the inter-marriage of our children and our children's children, will be formed a nation great and strong and purified."


   Through all those weeks our heroine never slept. It seems incredible that the frail form of a girl should be endowed with so great a power of endurance, and that the human mind can stand the strain of smiling self-control by day, abandonment of grief by night.


   Those nearest to her, divining something of what she was passing through, lavished countless proofs of tender sympathy on her, innumerable acts of loving care for her personal comfort, and well-thought-out plans for drawing her away from herself into the charmed circle of the B—— Labouchere house.


   And when her marriage-day drew near she turned away with a superficial glance at the array of costly presents, to devour once again the cables from South Africa, the telegrams from her Generals, the letter and the photograph of her beloved President, inscribed in his illegible hand, "For services rendered during the late war."


   Last, but not least, there came to her

   official-looking documents from Het Loo, the personal congratulations of the Queen, the Prince Consort, and the Queen-mother—and the ancient blood of Holland coursed more swiftly through her veins as she thought of Wilhelmina, the dauntless young Queen of the Netherlands, now her Queen.


   In all the ranks of the "Petticoat Commando" there was not one woman who had dared more, risked more, than the brave Queen of Holland when she dispatched her good man-of-war to bear away from the shores of Africa the hunted President of the South African Republic, to the refuge of her hospitable land.


   Flowers, flowers everywhere, first in baskets, then in cartloads, then in waggon-loads, they were deposited at the doors until they overflowed from the reception-rooms into the halls and staircases, and even the verandahs—chrysanthemums and roses in riotous profusion, nestling violets, rarest orchids, bright carnations, heavy with the richest perfume.


   Each flower had a separate message for the bride. They understood, and they enveloped her with their unspoken sympathy.


   Some there were adorned with her beloved, her most tragic "Vierkleur," and over them she lingered long, breathing a prayer to merciful Heaven to still her beating heart for ever.


   Not in the wild beauty of the Swiss scenery did she find rest, not by the calm lakes of sapphire blue in which she saw reflected the rugged mountains, soul-satisfying in their majestic grandeur, not in the soundless, the mysterious regions of the eternal

   snows—but in the north of Holland, where she found herself when autumn fell, Hansie slept.


   Languid and more languid she became; drooping visibly, she sank into oblivion in that northern village home, conscious only in her waking hours of the cold, the driving sleet, the howling wind, the ceaseless drip, drip of the swaying trees.


   As the long winter months crept by, her sleep became more and more profound, less haunted by the hideous nightmares of the past, and though she at first rebelled, ashamed of her growing weakness, she was soon forced to yield to the resistless demands of outraged nature.


   In this she was supported by her husband, who, unknown to her, was acting on the advice of the famous nerve-specialist who had watched her unobserved.


   "Let her sleep, if need be for a year, and in the end you will find her normal and restored, of that I am convinced," he had said; and in these words her husband found his greatest comfort, as he tucked his little dormouse in and tip-toed from the darkened room.


   Hansie lost count of time, but there were two days in the week of which she was quite sure—the day on which the South African mail reached her and the day on which it was dispatched. In between she slept, as we have seen, but when she woke she always knew that her enfranchised spirit had been to her native land.


   A full year had gone by, fifteen months, and when the first breath of winter once more touched the land

   she gradually became aware of voices calling to her, insistent, imperative voices from across the seas.


   "I must go," she said. "What am I doing here? South Africa is calling. My people want me there. You and I must go. There is a great work for us both." And he, no less ardent and enthusiastic, yielded to her prayers, bade farewell to home and fatherland, sailed away with her to the unknown.


   "In all the world," she said, "there is no pain to be compared with the pain of being born a patriot; but a patriot in Heaven protect me from the tragedy of such a fate!"