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From The Lady Who Fought
by Sarah Raal
With no fixed destination, we chose a direction and trekked away from the farm and the railway line. It was a slow business and the going was difficult. The oxen, which had been inspanned in no particular order, would not pull together. We moved in the direction of Toomfontein. Across the plains, behind the mountains, came Sam with the flock of sheep. At Toomfontein, we waited for them to catch up with us; and I told Sam to trek from there to Vlakfontein, where we would meet up again and make further plans.
At Vlakfontein we rested and camped for about three weeks. It was far from my brothers, and it was not easy taking care of all the sheep.
To my great joy, my brothers got leave to join Commandant Nieuwoudt’s commando. This meant that they were much closer to me, and were able to afford me some protection, while I could assist them with clothing and other provisions. For greater safety, and to be closer to them, I trekked from Vlakfontein to Boomplaas, a farm about eight miles away, and about six miles from where my brothers were stationed.
I stayed at Boomplaas for about six weeks, hoping the war would soon be over, for coping with the sheep had become very difficult. It was a large flock, and the wild dogs and jackals were a menace. Also, I felt neither at home nor at ease there. I had a peculiar dread of the big mountains with their deep, dark ravines full of baboons. This was the farm where a battle had taken place in 1848. The officers’ graves there, and the ghost stories that were told, made the place even less attractive to me.
Dear old Tryn and the others remained loyal to me, and continued to sleep with me in the house. I also had my faithful dog, and the revolver my brothers had given me, so I was at least reasonably protected.
A strange thing happened one night while I was staying there. As usual, we locked up the house and went to sleep, but at about eleven o’clock we heard something. Nero, my dog, also heard it, and ran growling from one window to the next. I patted and coaxed him so that he wouldn’t bark. Tryn was afraid, and came to my bed, wanting to know what was going on. Suddenly Nero barked loudly and jumped up against the door, and the next thing I knew Tryn was sitting beside me in bed. She wouldn’t listen, however much I tried to calm her down, and refused to leave my bed. She insisted that I fire a shot for some kind of reassurance, otherwise she wouldn’t budge. There was nothing I could do, so I fired a shot through the door, and we sat quietly and listened. When it was all dead quiet again, and nothing had happened, Tryn went, fetched her bedding, and made her bed right next to mine. Thus we spent the rest of the night, without sleeping at all.
Early next morning, we were anxious to see what had been going on. To our astonishment, we found the kitchen door wide open, with the whole lock sawn off, and some of our things stolen from the pantry. So it was a petty thief that had given us such a fright.
It was now my sixth week at Boomplaas, and the experience of the previous night had made me even more afraid of the place. I saw a lot of my brothers. They passed by on their way to blow up the railway line, or when they went out scouting, and they would usually pay me a visit.
The morning after the theft, I received a message that my brothers would be coming for supper the following evening. Next morning I was up and about early, to get everything ready for their arrival, and to prepare a good meal for them.
By afternoon everything was more or less ready, and I went to sit and work in front of the window in my room. I became so engrossed in my needlework that I didn’t notice a group of horsemen arriving, and only when they reached the yard did I see that the place was crawling with Khakis. I got such a fright that I simply jumped up to go outside, but before I could do so the English troops came storming into the house and started searching all the rooms. After a while they stopped, but only after they had stolen what they wanted – that night I did not even have a slice of bread to eat.
I began to worry less about what was going on at the house. My real concern was what would happen that evening when my brothers arrived, as planned. They knew nothing about the enemy, and would therefore ride in, relaxed and ignorant of the danger awaiting them. I had to make a plan. I had to warn them. But how?
The English officers came in, sat in the living room, and called for me. I quickly warned Tryn to say nothing. She was to know nothing of any Boers, nor was she to be able to understand them if they spoke to her. I was still conspiring with Tryn when one of the English again came to tell me that the Commandant wished to see me.
When I entered the living room, it was full of English soldiers, laughing, chatting and smoking. I had to do everything in my power to control myself. My nerves almost got the better of me. I was afraid, shy and angry, all at the same time. Then the interrogation began.
‘What can you tell us about the Boers? Where are they? Do you see them often?’ And so on. My interrogator spoke in a quiet and friendly manner, and it did not seem as if he was going to handle me too roughly.
I said to him: ‘Look, it’s tea time. Let me first make tea, then I’ll come and sit down, and tell you everything.’
My purpose, of course, was to play for time, so as to get my plans in order. When I left the room, one of them went and sat down at the piano, and began to play Home, Sweet Home. It was played so sadly that a cold shiver went down my spine at the sound of the well known melody. Naturally, he was thinking of his home, but what about mine? I preferred not to hear it, so I closed the door behind me. After a while the tea was ready, and Tryn took it into the living room. I also went in and stood next to the piano while the playing continued. By now I had a reasonably coherent story in mind. The piano playing stopped, and the Commandant again asked me what I could tell them. I said I knew next to nothing about the Boers, and that I never saw them. But, I told them, there was a patrol of burghers in the area.
‘Where? Where?’ they interrputed me.
I said I didn’t know – they never stayed in the same place. I told them that a younger brother of mine was with the burgher patrol, and that he didn’t want to carry on fighting. He knew they would never be able to defeat the enemy, and things were so scarce. I was to let him know when an English force arrived, as he wished to give himself up, and be sent to one of the camps.
‘But,’ he asked, and here he almost caught me out, ‘how would you know where he is if they never stay in the same place?’
‘Oh, that’s easy,’ I answered. ‘I write to him often. The letter is placed under a special stone he knows about. He comes and fetches it there, and also leaves one for me.’
I said I was anxious that he should go in under protection, and would like to get my horse and saddle ready, to get a message to him. I could write to him now, and a young servant could deliver the letter.
The Commandant looked at the others, who seemed to me to be very sceptical, and not at all keen on the idea. I approached him, took him by the arm, and in a pleading voice, a half-cry I made sound as pathetic as possible, I begged him to please save my young brother. He spoke to the others again, then said to me: ‘All right, write to him in English. Then show it to me, and I’ll see.’
I took some writing paper, went and stood next to him at the piano, and wrote. I was shaking like a leaf and could hardly write – so afraid was I that my plan would backfire. But when the officers started chatting again, my courage returned, and I became less timid.
I wrote the following note on the first page of the writing pad: ‘Dear Brother, I promised to let you know. An English force has just arrived. Try to come over at once. Sarah.’
Unobserved, I lifted up the first page without tearing it off, and wrote on the second page: ‘There is a large English force here. They’re looking for you. Be careful. Don’t come tonight. I’ve been captured.’
I held out the writing pad so he could read it. My heart was pounding like a hammer in my throat. What would happen to me if he lifted the first page and saw the second? At that moment I could not speak. He finished reading and said: ‘All right, then, you can send it.’
Ever so carefully I tore out the two pages together, put them in an envelope, and sealed it in front of them. Only then could I begin to breathe normally again.
Once the servant had left, everything would be all right – he knew where to find them. Tryn had put him through his paces. He knew the story of the stone post office, and would betray nothing if anyone interrogated him.
The officers all went outside together to watch the servant leave with the letter, and ordered the guards to let him pass. Little did they know that he was riding straight to the Boer patrol.
Suddenly I felt free, and able to relax again. I knew my letter would reach its destination quickly and unharmed. The servant knew the veld, and my brothers were not far away.