The Captain's visit was not an unmixed joy. Some bitter revelations were made, much pathos mixed with the humours of the situation and tragic experiences related by all—but on these I shall merely touch, as unavoidable and necessary for the completion of my story.
After the treachery of their own people and the arming of the natives, nothing troubled the men so much as the fact that the fighting burghers were, in some parts of the country, suffering from sore gums and showing signs of scurvy, caused by an unchanging diet of meat and mealies. The spies wanted to communicate this to some good, trustworthy doctor and to get medicine for them to take out to the commandos, but Mrs. van Warmelo told them that no medicine in the world could cure that. What they wanted was a change of diet—fresh milk, vegetables, fruit, and an abundant supply of lime-juice, etc.
Sending out lime-juice would be as absurd as impossible, for it would be as a drop in the ocean of want—and as it was, the men were handicapped by the two bottles of good French brandy which they were taking out for medicinal purposes. These could not be thrown across with the other parcels, but would have to be carried on their persons as they wriggled through the barbed wires across the drift of the Aapies River.
In some districts, where the destruction of farms had not yet been completed, the commando found a sufficient supply of fresh fruit and vegetables and were in no immediate danger of the dread disease, but in the neighbourhood of the towns there was nothing more to be done in the way of devastation, and the only fresh food they got was what they took from the enemy. As an instance of the thoroughness of the system of destruction, Naudé related how he and his corps of hungry men had one day come upon a kraal containing the bodies of over 500 sheep in an advanced stage of decomposition, with their throats cut or their heads cleft in two by swords. Too far away from towns or camps to be driven to some place where they could have been kept for the use of starving and suffering humanity, they had been slaughtered and left to rot—anything to prevent their falling into the hands of the Boer commandos.
No provisions of any sort were left within their reach and they lived entirely on what they took by main force from the enemy.
A precarious existence indeed!
Not to know from day to day where the next meal would come from and with appetites sharpened by the healthy, roving, outdoor life they led, no wonder these men uttered imprecations on the heads of those responsible for the systematic devastation of the country and wholesale destruction of food.
The privilege too of stripping their prisoners of their clothes had its disadvantages, for in many cases they swarmed with vermin and had to be boiled before they could be used, while a camp deserted by the English had to be approached warily and with the utmost caution on account of the vermin with which it frequently was infested.
English prisoners were set free (what could the Boers do with them otherwise?), but the traitors caught with them red-handed were shot without mercy—and it was Naudé's duty, as Captain of the Secret Service, to see that these executions were carried out. This was to him the hardest task of all.
"His fallen brothers" he called them, and voice and eye when he spoke of them betrayed compassionate horror and wrath unspeakable.
Armed natives met the same fate, and in a few words he described to his shuddering listeners how it was done, how he informed the doomed man of his fate, how the prisoner pleaded for mercy and offered to join the Boer ranks, how he prayed in despair when he found no mercy, no relenting, how he covered his face or folded his arms, how the shots rang out and he fell down dead.
Scenes such as these were witnessed without number, but the execution of a "fallen brother," when the details were arranged, took place some distance apart, beyond the vision of the burghers who had captured him.
But it was when the subject of the Concentration Camps was broached that the darkest gloom settled over Harmony.
Captain Naudé had a young wife and two children in one of the Camps in Natal, and Mrs. Malan had procured, as a surprise for him, snapshots of his dear ones taken in the Camp. When they were placed in his hands he gazed on them for a long time in silence, finally muttering under his breath, "For this the English must die!" and from that moment he was moody and silent.
His thirst for information on the condition of the Irene Camp, as Hansie had found it, was insatiable, and hours were spent in discussing the subject and its probable effect on the duration of the war.
"What do the men think of the Concentration Camps?" Hansie asked. "Will they give in for the sake of the women and children?"
"No," was the emphatic answer—"never. We all feel that our first duty is to fight until our independence is assured. We are not responsible for the fate of our women and children, and they let no opportunity pass of urging us to be brave and steadfast in the fulfilment of our duty to our country. Our spies come from the Camps continually with messages of encouragement and hope; but that the mortality among them is more bitter to bear than anything else, you can understand...."
There was a long pause, and then, the Captain continued gloomily:
"I did not recognise my wife on that photo—she has become an old, old woman.... Sometimes on commando we actually enjoy ourselves. You must not think that it is all hardship and trouble! I gave a concert, quite a good one, on the President's birthday, and occasionally, when we come to a farm where there are still some girls left, we take them out riding and driving."