It would be a simple matter for me to fill this volume many times by relating the thrilling experiences and adventures of people unknown to me personally and yet known sufficiently by intimate friends who guarantee their truth and veracity, but this is not my intention in writing this book.
A brief outline, however, of the history of one of the principal members of the Secret Committee, during the war, will not be out of place here, because of his close connection with the "Petticoat Commando."
Mr. C.P. Hattingh, head keeper of the Government Buildings under the South African Republic and deacon of the Dutch Reformed Church under the Reverend Mr. Bosman, played the part of an honourable and staunch burgher throughout the war, and rendered countless services to destitute women and children, in addition to his strenuous labours on the Secret Service.
On the morning of June 5th, 1900, when it became evident beyond doubt that the British would enter Pretoria that day, he removed the Transvaal flag from Government Buildings and took it to his house for safe keeping.
To his surprise he was not asked at any time by the military what had become of the Government flag, and he was able to keep it in safety until his position on the Committee became precarious and made it dangerous for him to preserve this precious relic of the past at his own house any longer.
He therefore secretly conveyed it to the house of a friend, Mr. Isaac Haarhoff, whose wife carefully concealed it until the war was over, and then handed it to him again. He gave it to General Botha, who presented it to the Pretoria Museum, where it is now preserved and exhibited as a priceless national memento.
Mr. Hattingh took the oath of neutrality with the other burghers in Pretoria and maintained his post in the Government Buildings for one month after the occupation of the capital. He was then asked either to take the oath of allegiance or resign from his post.
He chose the latter alternative, although he had a wife and family to support and knew not how, in time of war, he would find the means to do so.
After some deliberation he decided to begin a private bakery in a small building behind his house, and then began what proved to be a desperate struggle for existence.
With Boer meal at £8 per bag and flour at £5 per hundred pounds, the unfortunate man tried to make a small profit on the tiny sixpenny loaves. There was no question of engaging hired help, and he was obliged to work almost day and night in order to make the business pay. Sometimes he had neither sleep nor rest for thirty hours at a stretch except while partaking of his frugal fare. When flour became even more scarce he had to augment his supply by mixing it with mealie meal, ground sweet-potatoes, and barley, until, in fact, only sufficient flour was used to keep the loaves from falling to pieces.
By hard work he was not only able to pay his way, but assisted relatives and friends in a similar predicament.
As one of the deacons of the church, he came into constant touch with the wives and families of fighting burghers, brought into town from their devastated homes, and it was a common sight to see a row of these unfortunates standing in his back-yard, holding dishes and buckets containing their rations of meal and flour, which they implored him to take in exchange for his ready-baked loaves, because there was a dearth of fuel.
Although their rations consisted of what had perhaps once been flour, but was now a black and lumpy composition, evil-smelling and swarming with vermin, the good man never disappointed his petitioners.
His fame as a philanthropist spread, and the rows of women in his back-yard increased. While engaged in serving them he listened to their tales of hardship and privation, watched their suffering faces, made mental notes of the harrowing details of each case.
There was an epidemic of "black measles" going through the town at the time in the overcrowded quarters of the "Boer refugees," as they were called. Scarcely a mother appealed to him who had not lost one or more children, in many cases all she possessed, within a few weeks.
Now, Mr. Hattingh would no doubt have concerned himself with the peaceful occupation of his bakery until the end of the war (for he had his hands more than full), had his compassionate heart not been wrung beyond endurance by the scenes he was forced to witness every day. His conscience smote him and he reproached himself with being in town when duty should have called him to the side of his fellow-countrymen, struggling against such fearful odds in their efforts to preserve their independence.
Bitterness filled his soul.
What religious and conscientious scruples he still had against violating his oath of neutrality he laid before his most trusted friends, to be met with the same answer everywhere, "The oath of neutrality is null and void, a mere formality," as the enemy had declared in connection with the recruiting of National Scouts from the ranks of the Transvaal burghers.
At this critical moment it was not to be wondered at that he should have accepted Captain Naudé's appointment of him on the Secret Committee, not only without hesitation, but in a spirit of intense satisfaction.
Henceforth the mind of the baker dwelt with ceaseless activity on the problems of the Boer espionage, while his busy fingers plied the brown and white loaves of bread.
Inspired by patriotism, driven by love and compassion, he became in time the most resourceful, the most ingenious, and the most trusted of Boer spies.
One evening, soon after dusk, while he was engaged in his bakery, he heard a timid knock at the door, which he opened, fully expecting to see a customer.
To his surprise he found there a Boer with a long, unkempt beard—a "backvelder," or, as we call it, a "takhaar," of the most pronounced type.
The man withdrew into the shadows as the door opened, and with great apparent timidity showed as little of himself as possible.
Mr. Hattingh asked him to come in, and he ventured forward with shrinking hesitation.
"What can I do for you?" Mr. Hattingh asked.
"Take me in," the man answered breathlessly. "Harbour me. I am a Boer spy, straight from the commandos."
Mr. Hattingh betrayed the greatest amazement, as if he had never heard of the possibility of such a thing.
"A Boer spy!" he exclaimed. "How did you come in?"
The man described the route he had taken, and in an instant Mr. Hattingh, with his intimate knowledge of the actual route employed by Boers, realised that the man before him was not from the field at all, but a National Scout, employed by the British to betray the loyal Boers—a "trap," in fact, such as were in constant use against their brother burghers.
Mr. Hattingh asked him a few more leading questions to satisfy himself of the true nature of the man's errand, and then, as if suddenly recalled to himself, broke out in evident agitation:
"But I cannot harbour you, my good fellow. I am neutral."
"Surely you would not have the heart to see me fall into the hands of the enemy!" the man exclaimed.
"I am very sorry," Mr. Hattingh replied, "but I dare not take you in."
"Tell me some news, then," he implored. "Our men are getting hopeless and desperate, and when we bring them news from town it gives them new courage to continue the war."
"I know of no news to tell you. I am neutral," Mr. Hattingh answered firmly, and the man left him with his mission unaccomplished.
Unseen himself, Mr. Hattingh watched him depart, and saw him getting into a cab, which was evidently waiting for him in the neighbourhood, and drive rapidly away.
Mr. Hattingh immediately went to his neighbour, Mr. Isaac Haarhoff, and told him what had happened.
"What do you think I ought to do? I am under suspicion without a doubt."
"Report the matter to the authorities at once," Mr. Haarhoff answered, and our friend accepted the advice with alacrity.
He mounted his bicycle and rode with all speed to the nearest Charge Office, reporting that a Boer spy had been to his house for refuge that evening.
"Why did you not bring him with you?" the officer inquired.
"I did not know what to do," Mr. Hattingh began, when another official made his appearance and asked what the matter was.
The first related what had occurred, and Mr. Hattingh, keenly watching the two men, saw the significant glances they exchanged, and caught the whispered:
"It is all right."
"No, old man," he thought, "it is all wrong, and you have been my dupe."
The men then turned to him, telling him that if he were visited by a spy again he was to take him in and report him at the Charge Office.
"Right," he replied. "I will do so." And on his homeward way he congratulated himself with the thought that he had no doubt been entered on the lists as a "faithful British subject."
This incident was followed, as far as he was concerned, by far-reaching consequences. Not only was he left with his family in the undisturbed security of his home-life after that, but he was able to carry on his work on the Committee in perfect safety, and when eventually the darkness closed over him in his prisoner's cell, he felt assured that this would count in favour of his wife and family.
Many were the men led by him through the streets of Pretoria to the spot where the burghers awaited them, countless and valuable the services rendered to the Boer commandos, innumerable the acts of kindness and charity performed by this brave burgher of Transvaal.
Mr. Colin Logan, who gave up an excellent position in the bank, was one of the men escorted out by him in order to join the Boer forces.
Riding slowly on his bicycle, with Mr. Logan walking beside him, they passed through a group of military tents, almost touching the soldiers as they sat around their camp-fires.
Not a shadow of suspicion could be roused by their calm behaviour, and they reached the burghers without any difficulty.
While they were exchanging a few words of greeting, the sudden, furious barking of the dogs at the Lunatic Asylum, not far from them, warned them of danger, and, taking a hasty leave, the burghers disappeared noiselessly into the darkness, and Mr. Hattingh literally tore home across the veld on his bicycle, clearing holes and jumping over stones in his mad career. He was able to reach his home just in time to be under shelter when the "curfew" rang 10 o'clock, the hour at which all respectable citizens, carrying residential passes, were supposed to be indoors.
What eventually became of Mr. Hattingh and the other members of the Committee we shall see as our story proceeds.