When my tale was finished, though, the contempt of the artist for the mere artisan moved her to complete the record.
"You are wrong when you say the truth never came to light," she said. "I know the whole story."
"But," I answered in surprise, "nothing was ever done in the matter."
"Certainly not," she said with spirit. "It was not a Kafir murder. It was a killing by Burghers, and, though God knows I utterly condemn all such doings, it cannot be denied that there was as much on the one side as on the other."
The due request was proffered.
"It is not a tale to carry abroad," observed the old lady. "It concerns some of my family. The woman was Christina van der Poel, a half sister of my second husband, and what I am now telling you is the confession of Koos van der Poel, her brother, on the day he died. I remember he was troubled with an idea that he would be buried near her, and that she would cry out on him from her grave to his."
The suggestion, as you must agree, quite justified Katje's moving closer to me.
"It was like this," resumed the Vrouw Grobelaar, after an expressionless glance at the two of us. "Christina was a wild fanciful girl, with an eye to every stranger that off- saddled at the farm, Katje; and she had barely a civil word to waste on a bashful Burgher. I can't say I ever saw much in her myself. She was a tall young woman, with a face that drew the eye, as it were; but she was restless and unquiet in her motions, and, to my mind, too thin and leggy. But men have no taste in these things; and if Christina had been of a decent turn, she might have had her pick of all the unmarried men within a day's ride, and there used to be some very good men about here.
"But, as I said, she kept them all on the far side of the fence, and for a long time their only comfort was in seeing no one else take her. Till one day a surprising thing happened.
"A tall smart man rode into the farm one afternoon and hung up his horse on the rail. He swaggered with his great clumping feet right into the house, and went from one room to another till he found the old father.
"'Are you Mynheer van der Poel?' he asked him in a loud voice, standing in the middle of the chamber with his hat on his head and his sjambok in his hand.
"'I am,' answered the other.
"'I am John Dunn,' said the stranger. 'I have a store at Bothaskraal, and I am come to ask for your daughter to wife.'
"'An Englishman?' asked the old man.
"'To be sure,' said the stranger.
"'But where have you seen the girl?' asked Mynheer van der Poel.
"'Oh, in many places,' replied the Englishman, laughing. 'We are very good friends, she and I, and have been meeting every evening for a long time. Indeed, you have to thank me for giving you a chance to consent to the wedding.'
"Now the Heer van der Poel was always a quiet man, but there was nothing weak in him.
"'I do thank you,' he said, 'for playing the part of an honest man, and no doubt the girl has been foolish. A girl is, you know; and you are big enough to have taken her eye. But there will be no marriage; Christina is to marry a Boer.'
"'So you object to an Englishman?' sneered the other.
"'Yes,' said the old man.
"'What have you against the English?'
"'In general, nothing at all. I have found them brave men and good fighters; at Potchefstroom I killed three. But,' and the old man held up his forefinger, 'I will not have one in my family.'
"'I see,' said the other. 'So you refuse me your daughter?'
"'Yes,' answered the father.
"'So be it,' returned the stranger, turning to the door. 'In that case I shall take her without your leave.' And off he went at a canter, never looking back.
"Next day Mynheer van der Poel took Christina into a kraal, and when she had confessed her meetings with the Englishman, he gave her a sound beating with a stirrup- leather, and told her that for the future she must not go alone outside of the house.
"'And either I or one of your brothers will always be at home,' concluded the old man, 'so that if this Mynheer Dunn comes, he will be shot.'
"So Christina for upwards of a month never saw her Englishman. Of course the matter was a great scandal, and her people said as little as they could about it; but, nevertheless, it got about, and the number of visitors to the farm for the next week or two was astonishing. But call as often as they pleased, the Englishman stayed away and they saw nothing of him.
"But one morning when daylight came Christina was missing. They looked about, and there was no trace of her, but in the road outside there was the spoor of a cart that had halted in passing during the night.
"'It is plain enough,' said the old man 'She is with her Englishman at Bothaskraal. Sons, get your rifles, and we will ride over.'
"But on the way they had to pass Morder Drift, and thinking only of the shame to their house, they rode altogether into the water, none looking ahead. There had been rains, and each man was compelled to give all his care to guiding his horse through the torrent, while holding his rifle aloft in one hand.
"When they were thus all in the water together they heard a shout, and the Englishman on a big horse rode down to the water's edge. He had a gun at his shoulder covering them all, and they headed their horses up-stream and halted to hear him speak.
"He was prideful and contemptuous. 'Six of you,' he cried, 'no less than six, who have come out to kill one man, and the whole lot bottled up in the middle of a ditch and waiting to be shot. The first one that moves his rifle till I give permission dies.'
"Not one of them answered, but all kept their eyes on him. Old Mynheer van der Poel had a cartridge in his rifle, and he touched his horse with the spur under water that it might fidget round towards the Englishman.
"'Well,' said the man on the bank, 'if I shot each one of you as you sit, I should be in my right, and not one could blame me. But where I come from one does not shoot even a duck sitting, and I am going to let you go. You shall have a chance to do the thing decently, so come back and fight me openly. Or,' and he laughed as he spoke, 'you can do it another way. I am leaving this cursed country shortly with Christina. See if you can get at me and kill me before then. It's a fair offer; but I warn you you'll find it a dangerous game, and there'll be blood-letting on the one side or the other.'
"He drew back his horse a little, still covering them with the rifle. 'Now,' he cried, 'drop your guns into the water, and you can go. Drop them, I say!'
"One by one the young men let their rifles fall into the stream; but the old father fumbled with his finger. Suddenly there was a shot, and the Englishman's big horse shied at the spurt of mud at his feet. Of course the old man could not shoot without aiming.
"Then the Englishman brought round his gun, and the old man, sitting on his horse, with the water streaming over his saddle, knew that a tremble of the finger would send him to God.
"'But that you are Christina's father,' said the Englishman, in a voice as clear as falling pebbles, 'I would put a bullet through your white head this minute. This time, though, you shall go alive, but by—! you shall have your ducking.'
"And dropping his muzzle, he suddenly shot the straining horse through the head, so that it fell immediately, and the old man was plunged out of sight in the rushing water.
"When he got to the bank, fifty yards down the stream, the Englishman was gone.
"They went home soberly, all busy with thoughts of their own. When they neared the home kraals the father spoke.
"'This is a business to be wiped out,' he said. 'This shame cannot rest with us. For my part, I could not pray with a clear mind and that Englishman alive.'
"They all agreed with him, though, as Koos admitted, with the death-rattle shaking him, they were all dreadfully afraid of that big swaggering man. The old man had done a fair share of fighting before, and at Potchefstroom, as he said, he had killed three rooineks, so he was ready enough for the business.
"But the young men had only been out against the Kafirs, and there is not very much in that.
"Now old Mynheer van der Poel was not such a fool as to risk his life or the lives of his sons in fighting the Englishman. The war against the rooineks had made him slim; for it is chiefly by wits and knowledge that the Boers have beaten the English. So instead of going out to be shot like a fool, he made a plan.
"You know how Bothaskraal lies. At the back of it there is nothing but the Kafir country and the thorn bush; and if you would get to the dorp, or to the road, or to the railway, you must cross the Dolf Spruit, and for miles the only crossing place is Morder Drift. So at Morder Drift they set a watch, four in the day time and three in the night, never losing sight of the drift.
"In this manner they waited a month till the evil night came. It was a night sent by the devil's own design, a gruesome, cloud-heavy, sulphurous night, and at the drift were the old man, Koos, and the lad Hendrik. Koos was on watch among the bushes; the other two crouched below the bank out of the wind. A little rain dribbled down, and of a sudden Koos whistled like a korhaan.
"The two got their rifles and went down into the water on foot, the old man up stream, the lad down, stepping carefully, for the stream was very strong and pulled at their waists dangerously. Koos walked into the road, above the water and in the shadow, and waited.
"Three horses came down the other side of the drift, and three persons on them. The one was the Englishman, the other was Christina, the third a Kafir. In the darkness of the drift they could not see the watchers, and in the swirl of the water they could not hear the click of the rifles.
"Into the water they rode, and then Koos, who had a magazine rifle, suddenly stood up and shot the Kafir. He screamed and fell into the water, and his horse turned and galloped on.
"'Keep still, Mynheer Dunn,' cried Koos. 'A movement and you are dead. Better raise your hands, I think. That is right. Now, Christina, ride out of the water on this side.'
"'Stay where you are, Christina,' said the Englishman. 'Sir,' he called to Koos, 'you have trapped me sure enough, and I ask and expect nothing. But what are you going to do to Christina?'
"'Are you Christina's husband?' asked Koos. 'Are you married to her?'
"'I am,' answered the other.
"'That is well for Christina. Otherwise she would be shot. We have little patience with wrongdoers, I can tell you.'
"'But what are you going to do with her?'
"'I? Nothing at all,' answered Koos. 'She is no longer my business. It will be for Christina's father to decide what shall be done to her.'
"'Will you promise—' began the Englishman; but Koos laughed.
"'I promise nothing,' he replied. 'In a few moments you will be dead, and past bargaining. Christina, ride on.'
"'Stay a moment,' called the Englishman again. 'I will ask you a favor, anyhow. It is not well to refuse a dying man, and perhaps in a few moments I shall have more power over you. So I beg you, spare Christina.'
"'I promise nothing at all,' answered Koos. 'I am not afraid of ghosts.'
"'I wasn't thinking of that,' said the other. 'So I have nothing to gain whether by talking or holding my tongue?'
"'Nothing at all!'
"'Very well; if that be the case, take that!' and very suddenly he snatched a pistol—one of those things which hold six bullets—from his pocket and shot Koos in the leg.
Christina screamed as her horse bounded and carried her forward out of the water. Koos did not fall, but caught it by the rein and dragged her from the saddle. He held her close, with his left arm about her and his rifle in his right hand, pistol-fashion.
"'Shoot again, rooinek,' he cried mockingly. 'You will be sure to hit one of us.' And then he fired.
"At the same moment Mynheer van der Poel, in the water up- stream, fired, and the Englishman fell on to the bow of his saddle. The horse dashed down the water, and Koos, gripping the screaming girl, heard young Hendrik shoot again.
"There was silence for a minute then, and Mynheer van der Poel climbed out of the water and called to Hendrik.
"'Have you got him?' he cried.
"'Yes,' answered the boy; 'I am holding him up, but he is still alive.'
"'Can he stand?' cried the old man.
"'No,' came the answer from the water.
"'Then drown him,' commanded the father. 'I will come down and help.'
"When he had climbed down into the water again Koos laid the girl down. She was still white; her senses had fled. Presently as he was binding his leg he heard the father say—
"'Now raise him a little, and I will shoot again to make sure'; and immediately the sound of shot burst out. At this the girl opened her eyes, and Koos, looking at her, saw with astonishment that she smiled.
"'Have you killed him, Koos?' she asked very gently.
"'Be quiet,' answered Koos.
"'But tell me,' she persisted.
"'Yes.' he replied at length.
"She closed her eyes and sighed. 'That was cruel,' she said; 'I loved him so.'
"But she sat up again as the old father and the lad dragged the body out of the water.
"'Four wounds,' panted the old man. 'Not one of us missed. That was very good, considering the darkness.' And as he flung the bleeding corpse down he turned upon Christina.
"'Here,' he cried, calling her by a dreadful word of shame. 'Here is your husband.'
"'Father,' said young Hendrik, 'there is money in his pockets. If I take it people will say this was done by Kafirs.'
"'Take it then,' said the old man, and when the boy had emptied the pockets he bade him throw the money into the stream.
"Then they mounted and rode away, but not homewards. They rode across the stream to cross it twenty miles down, that their spoor should not betray them.
"And as Koos told me, while his eyes glazed, he turned and looked back, and there he saw Christina with the Englishman's head on her lap, looking after them with a face that set him trembling."
As the old lady concluded I passed an arm round Katje.
A GOOD END
One of the most awe-inspiring traits of the Vrouw Grobelaar was her familiarity with the subject of death. She had a discriminating taste in corpses, and remembered of several old friends only the figure they cut when the life was gone from them. She was as opinionative in this regard as in all others; she had her likes and dislikes, and it is my firm belief to this day that she never rose to such heights of conversational greatness as when attending a death-bed. It is on record that more than one invalid was relieved of all desire to live after being prepared for dissolution by the Vrouw Grobelaar.
On the evening following the burial of Katrina Potgieter's baby, which died of drinking water after a surfeit of dried peaches, the old lady was in great feather. Never were her reminiscences so ghoulish and terrifying, and never did she hurl her weighty moralities over so wide a scope. Eventually she lapsed into criticism, and announced that the art of dying effectively was little practiced nowadays.
"I hate to see a person slink out of life," she said. "Give me a man or a woman that knows all clearly to the last, and gives other people an opportunity to see some little way into eternity. After all, there's nothing more in dying than changing the style of one's clothes, and even the most paltry folk have some consideration as corpses. I can't see what there is to be afraid of."
"I don't think that," observed Katje. "Even if it wasn't that I was soon to be dead and buried, the whole business seems horrible. Fancy all the people crowding round to look at you and cry, while they talked as if you were already dead. When Polly Honiball was dying, old Vrouw Meyers asked her if she could see anything yet. Ugh!"
The old lady shook her head. "That's not the way to look at it," she replied. "A good death is the sign of a good life; or anyhow, that's how people judge it. It's as well to give no room for talk afterwards, Katje. And as for the mere death, no good Christian fears that. Why, I have known a man seek death!"
"Did he kill himself?" inquired Katje.
"Kill himself! Indeed he didn't. That would be a crime, and a dreadful scandal. No, he took death by the hand in a most seemly and respectable way, and his family were always thought the better of for it.
"Yes, I'll tell you about it. It will be a lesson to you, Katje, and I hope you will think about it and take it to heart.
"The man I am talking about was Mynheer Andries van der Linden, a most godly and prosperous Burgher, whose farm was on the High Veld. All the days of his life he walked uprightly, and married twice. His sons and daughters were many, and all good, save for one sidelong skellum, Piet, his second son, who afterwards went to live among the English. He had cattle and sheep at pasture for miles, and a kerk on his land, where his nephew, the Predikant, used to preach. And by reason of his sanctity and cleverness Andries grew richer and richer till the Burghers respected him so much that they made him a commandant and a member of the Church Council.
"All prospered with him, as I was telling you, until one day it seemed as if God's hand had fallen from him. He was smitten with a disease of which not the oldest woman in the district had ever seen the like, and his own flesh became a curse to him. The very marrow in his bones bred fire to feed on his body, and he lay on his bed in the torments of hell. For weeks he writhed and screamed like a madman, tossing on his blankets and tearing at his body, or struggling and howling as his sons held him down for fear he should injure himself in his frenzy. The whole thing was very terrible and mysterious; and it was said among the farms that Andries van der Linden could not have been so good after all, or God would not thus visit him with such a scourge.
"For myself, I never believed this, and what he afterwards did will show that I had the right of it. Still, good or bad, the affliction was undeniable, for I myself heard him screaming like a beast as I drove to Nachtmaal.
"The malady lasted for months, and all herbs and pills that were given him did not an atom of good. Even the Kafirs could do nothing, though Klein Andries, the old man's eldest son and a good lad, caught a witch-doctor and sjamboked him to pieces to make him help. In short, the illness was plainly beyond mortal cure, and the old man at last came to see this.
"I should have told you that he had times of peace, when the agony forsook him, and left him limp like a wet clout. Then he would sweat and quake with terror of the pains that would return; and so pitiful was his condition that he could not even listen with a proper patience to the reading of Scripture or the singing of David's psalms. You will see from this what a terrible visitation to a God-fearing man this illness was.
"So he made up his mind. One morning early, while quietness was with him, he called for Klein Andries and bade him shut the door of the room.
"'Andries,' he said, 'I have been thinking the matter to a finish, and I am determined to have an end to this torment.'
"'Have you found any means?' began Klein Andries.
"'Listen,' said the old man. 'It is plain to me, that I shall gain no cure on earth, and I have decided to die. So I shall die at the end of a week about two hours after sunrise.'
"Andries was of course very much taken aback. 'I do not understand,' he said. 'You cannot mean to kill yourself?'
"'Of course not,' answered the old man. 'That will be your part.'
"'How do you mean?' cried Andries.
"'I shall lie here in my bed, with clean pillows and fresh sheets, and the best coverlet. Our people will all be here,—you will see to that,—and when I have spoken to them and shaken their hands, you shall bring in your rifle—'
"'That will do,' said Klein Andries. 'You need tell me no more. I will not do it.'
"'But you are my first-born,' said the father.
"'It is all the same; I will not do it.'
"'Then you can get out of my house, with your wife and your children, and go look for a stone on which to lay your heads.'
"'That is very easy,' answered Klein Andries, quite calmly. 'No doubt we shall find that stone you speak of.'
"'And I will get Piet to do it,' said the old man.
"'No,' replied Klein Andries. 'Piet shall not do it. Nobody shall do it. I will not have it done.'
"'Andries,' said the old man, 'you and I must not talk thus. I am your father, and I tell you to do me this service. Say rather, I ask it of you. It is no more than an act of kindness to a stricken man; your hand on the gun will be the hand of mercy.'
"'But I cannot do it,' cried out Klein Andries in a sort of pain.
"'You will do it,' said the old man. 'Remember you are the eldest of my sons. You will do it, Andries?'
"'No,' said Andries.
"'You will do it?'
"'Then, Andries,' said the old man, half raising himself as he lay, and pointing a finger at his son—'then, Andries, eldest son and dearest and all, I will curse you.'
"For a full minute the two looked each other in the eyes, and then Klein Andries let his hand fall on his knee like a man beaten and broken.
"'It shall be as you say,' he answered at last. 'I will do what you ask, but—it will spoil my life for me.'
"'Thank you, my son,' said the old man, sinking back.
"'Oh, I will do it,' said Andries. 'But I hold it a sin, a black and bloody sin, that I commit with open eyes and a full knowledge. But I will do it.'
"So the thing happened, and all that week before his death the old man suffered little. As he said himself, his last taste of life was sweet in his mouth. He thought much upon his grave and the manner of his burying, and would often talk with Klein Andries and Piet, and give them directions.
"'I will not be buried in the kraal,' he said one day. 'My sister Greta never had any love for me, and I had just as lief not disturb her. Put me on top of the hill there; I was always one for an open view.'
"From where he lay he could see through the window the place where he desired to be buried, and the grave of his cousin Cornel, dead twenty years before..
"'Put me, then, on top of the hill,' he said, 'and I shall be able to overlook Cornel. He has a head-board with a round top, so you will give me two boards, one at my head and one at my feet, both with round tops. You would not have that carrion triumph over me?'
"'It shall be done,' said Andries.
"'And you might carve a verse on my headboard,' the old man went on. 'Cornel has only his name and dates, and no doubt he counts on my having no more. His board is only painted; see that you carve mine.'
"'I do not carve letters very well,' began Andries, 'but—'
"'Oh, you carve well enough,' said the old man. 'Very well indeed, considering. You won't have to do very much. There are plenty of short verses in the Psalms, and some—very good ones, too—in Proverbs. The Predikant will soon choose a verse of the right sort. Say a verse, Andries; it is not much.'
"'I will see to it,' said Andries.
"Then Piet, whose mind was a dunghill, had a horrible thought. 'But what about the water?' he cried, for the stream from which they took their drinking-water ran past the foot of the hill.
"'You must draw your water higher up, answered the old man. 'If I were not about to die, Piet, and therefore under a need to judge not, lest I be judged, I would cut down your oxen and sheep for that. Go out; I will say what I have to say to Andries.'
"When Piet was gone he went on. 'Remember, Andries, a bare four foot, no more. I would not wish to be late when the dead arise. Just four foot of cool earth, and a black coffin with plenty of room in it.'
"'I will take care,' replied Klein Andries.
"'Very well, do as I have told you, and I shall be very well off. I shall sleep without pain till the last day, and perhaps dream in peace about the verse on my head-board and the round tops.'
"Although I like a man to take it bravely, I can very well understand that that week must have been a terrible one for Klein Andries, who, though a good lad, and a wealthy man at this day, never was particularly quick at taking up an idea. He went about with a bowed head and empty eyes, like a man in mortal shame; and I believe that never since has he quite cast off the load his father laid on him. Not that I see any harm in the affair myself.
"Well, in proper course the day came, and Andries van der Linden lay in his bed between the fresh sheets, propped up with fine clean pillows. His people had come from near and far, for the curious story was well known, and they were proud of their kinsman. They crowded the room in which he lay, all in their best clothes, a little uneasy, as most folks are on great occasions, and all very quiet.
"Old Andries van der Linden was free from pain, and spoke to them all in very cheerful and impressing words. As he lay among his pillows with his white hair thrown back and his beard on his breast, he was a fine man to see—a picture of a good and a brave man. He read aloud from the Bible, and then prayed awhile, giving out his words grandly and without a quaver. Then he shook them all by the hand and bade each one good-bye.
"'Now, Andries,' he said, and lay back smiling.
"Klein Andries stood at the foot of the bed with his rifle resting across the rail, but he dropped his head with a sob.
"'I cannot,' he said, 'I cannot.'
"'Come, Andries,' said the old man again. 'Come, my son.'
"Then Klein Andries caught his breath in his throat and steadied the rifle. The old man lay calmly, still smiling, with fearless eyes.
"'Close your eyes,' said Andries hoarsely, and as the old man did so he fired.
"The windows of the room were blown outwards and broken, but the shot was a true one, and the work was well and workmanlike done."
"It must have spoiled the sheets," observed Katje.
"As to that," said the Vrouw Grobelaar, answering a point that no one had raised, "it has been seen over and over again that sin leaves its mark. Do you not trust or avoid a man because there is honor or wickedness in his face? Ah, men's faces are the writing on the wall, and only the Belshazzars cannot read them.
"But the marks go deeper than a lowering brow or a cruel mouth. Men may die and leave behind them no monuments save their sin. Of such a case I remember one instance.
"Before my second husband was married to his first wife he lived out yonder, on the Portuguese border, and in the thick of the fever country. I have not seen the place, but it is badly spoken of for a desolate, unchancy land, bad for cattle, and only good to hunters. My second husband was a great hunter, and died, as you know, through having his body crushed by a lion. The people out there are not good Boer stock, but a wild and savage folk, with dark blood in them.
"I only know this story from my second husband, but it took hold of me, as he used to tell it. There was a family in those parts of the name of Preez. No relation to the Du Preez you know, who are well enough in their way, but Preez simply,—a short name and a bad one. They were big holders of land, with every reason to be rich, but bad farmers, lazy hunters, and deep drinkers. The Kafirs down there make a drink out of fruit which is very fiery and conquers a man quickly, and these people were always to be seen half drunk, or else stupid from the stuff. Old Preez, the father, in particular, was a terrible man, by all tellings; full threescore and ten years of age, but strong, fiery, and full of oaths. My second husband used to say there was something in the look of him that daunted one; for his hair and his beard were white, his face was savagely red, and his eyes were like hot coals. And with it all he had a way of looking on you that made you run from him. When he was down with drink and fever he would cry out in a terrible voice that his mother was a queen's daughter and he was a prince."
"I have heard of the people you speak of," I said. "They are half-Portuguese, and perhaps the old man was not wholly lying."
"Um! Well, prince or not, he married in his youth a woman of the half-blood, and begot of her a troop of devils. Five sons he had, all great men, knowing not God and fearing none of God's works. And after them came a daughter, a puling slip of a thing, never meant to live, whom they did to death among them with their drinking and blaspheming and fighting.
"My second husband told me tales of that family that set my blood freezing. He had his own way of telling stories, and made you see pictures, as it were. Once, he used to say, for a trifle spoken concerning them and their ways, they visited a missionary by night, dragged him from his bed, and crucified him against his door, while his wife clung to the old man's knees and besought the mercy they never gave and never got. Even the wild folk of the countryside were stricken with the horror and impiety of the deed; and it says much for the fear in which the Preez family were held that none molested them or called them to account.
"In the end the eldest of the five sons took a mind to marry and to leave some of his accursed stock to plague the world when it should be delivered from him and his brothers. They cast about for a wife for him, and were not content with the first that offered. They had their pride, the Preez, and in their place a fair measure of respect, for among the wicked, you know, the devil is king. From one farmhouse to another they rode, dragging forth women and girls to be looked at like cattle. Many a tall, black- browed hussy would have been content to go away with Vasco Preez (such was his unchristian name), but he was not willing to do right by any of them.
"They were returning home from one of these expeditions when they passed a lowly house beside the road with no fence around it. But before the house a girl stood on the grass, with her kapje in her hand, to see the six big men ride by. She was little and slim, and, unlike the maidens of the country, whitish, with a bunch of yellow hair on the top of her head and hanging over her ears. The others would have passed her by, judging her unworthy even an insult, but Vasco reined in his horse and shouted a great oath.
"'The woman for me!' he cried. 'The woman I was looking for! I never knew what I wanted before.'
"The others halted to look, and the girl, frightened, ran into the house. Vasco got down from his horse.
"'Fetch the filly out,' shouted the old man. 'Fetch her out and let us see her paces.'
"Vasco walked straight into the little house, while the others waited, laughing. They heard no screams and no fighting, and presently out comes Vasco alone.
"He went over to his horse and mounted. 'There is nothing to wait for,' he said. 'Let us be getting on.'
"'But the girl?' cried one of his brothers. 'Is she dead, or what?'
"'No,' said Vasco, 'but she would not come.'
"'Would not come!' bellowed the old father, while the others laughed. 'Did you say she would not come?'
"'That is what I said,' answered Vasco, sitting his horse very straight, and scowling at the lot of them.
"'He has a fever,' cried the old man, looking from one to another. 'He is light in the head. My faith! I believe the girl has been beating him with a stick. Here, one of you,' he roared, turning on them, 'get down and kick the girl out of the door. We'll have a look at the witch!'
"Koos, the youngest, sprang from his saddle and made towards the house; but he was not gone five paces before Vasco spurred his horse on to him and knocked him down.
"'Keep off,' he said then, turning to face them all, as Koos rose slowly. 'If I cannot bring the girl out none of you can, and you had better not try. Whoever does will be hurt, for I shall stand in front of the door.'
"And he went straight to the house, and, dismounting, stood in the doorway, with his hands resting on the beam above his head. He was a big man, and he filled the door.
"'Hear him,' foamed the old father. 'God, if I were as young as any of you, I would drag the girl across his body. Sons, he has defied us, and the girl has bewitched him. Run at him, lads, and bring them both out!'
"'They all came towards the house in a body, but stopped when Vasco raised his hand.
"'I warn you,' he told them—'I warn you to let the matter be. This will not be an affair of fighting, with only broken bones to mend when it is over. If I take hold of any one after this warning, that man will be cold before the sun sets. And to show you how useless this quarrel is, I will ask the girl once more if she will come out. You all saw her?'
"'Yes,' they answered; 'but what is this foolery about asking her?'
"'You saw her—very well.' He raised his voice and called into the house, 'Meisje, will you not come out? I ask you to.'
"There was silence for a moment, and then they heard the answer. 'No,' it said; 'I will stay where I am. And you are to go away.'
"'As soon as may be, my girl,' called Vasco in answer. 'Now,' he said to the men, 'you see she will not come.'
"'But, man, in the name of God, cast her over your shoulder and carry her out,' cried the father.
"'Vasco looked at him. 'Not this one,' he said. 'She shall do as she pleases.'
"Then they rushed on him, but he stepped out from the door, and caught young Koos round the middle. With one giant's heave he raised him aloft and dashed him at the gang, scattering them right and left, and knocking one to the ground, where he remained motionless. But Koos lay like a broken tool or a smashed vessel, as dead men lie. And all the while Vasco talked to them.
"'Come on,' he was saying. 'Come all of you. We shall never do anything but fight now. I see plainly we ought to have fought long ago. Bring her out, indeed!'
"They paused after that, aghast at the fury of the man they were contending against. But the old man gave them no rest.
"'Get sticks,' he cried to them—get sticks and kill him.'
"They dragged beams from a hut roof, and one of them took a heavy stone. Vasco stood back and watched them till they came forward again.
"The one with the stone came first, but it was too big to throw from a distance, and he dared not go near. The others approached with caution, and Vasco stood still, with his hands resting as before at the top of the door. They were bewildered at his manner, and very cautious, but at length they drew near and rushed at him.
"Then a most astonishing thing happened. With one wrench Vasco tore the thick architrave from the wall, a beam as thick as a man's thigh, and smote into the middle of them. Where he hit the bone gave and the flesh fell away, and as they ran from before him the wall fell in.
"Down came the wall, and with it the heavy beams on the roof. The old father, cursing over a broken arm, heard the girl scream, and saw the wreck come crashing about Vasco's shoulders till he disappeared below it. And then, where the house had been stood a ruin, with two souls buried in the midst of it.
"It steadied them like a dash of cold water. However they might fight among themselves, they were loyal to one another. Besides the old father, with his broken arm, there was only one other that could put a hand to the work, and together they started to drag away the beams and bricks and stones that covered Vasco and the girl.
"I know they were wicked men who are in hell long since, but I cannot contain a sort of admiration for the spirit that fastened them to their toil all that long night,—the old man with his broken arm, the young one with a dozen horrid wounds. As the sky paled towards morning, they discovered the girl dead, and leaving her where she lay they wrought on to uncover Vasco.
"When they found him he was crushed and broken, and pierced in many places with splinters and jagged broken ends of wood. But he had his senses still, and smiled as they cleared the thatch from above his face.
"The old man looked at him carefully. 'You are dying, my son,' he said.
"'Of course,' answered Vasco. 'Is that Renault?' He smiled again at his brother. 'So there are two of you alive, anyhow. How about the others?'
"'Two dead,' answered his father. 'And the other will not walk again all his days. You are a terrible fighter, my son.'
"'Yes,' answered Vasco, in a faint voice. 'It was the girl, you see.'
"'She was a witch, then?' asked the old man.
"'No,' said Vasco smiling. 'Or perhaps, yes. I do not know. But I will fight for her again if you like.'
"'Oho! so that is it,' and the old man knelt down beside him. 'Now, I see,' he said. 'I never guessed before—did not know it was in you. My son, I ask you to forgive us.'
"'I forgive, but where is she?'
"'Dead. No, it was none of our doing. You did it,—the roof fell on her. We will lay you together.'
"'Do so,' replied Vasco. 'I think I am dying now.'
"'Yes,' answered the father. Your face is becoming gray. Your throat will rattle in a minute. Look here; this is what my mother used to do.'
"'And he did thus," said the Vrouw Grobelaar, giving a very good imitation of the sign of the cross.
"But that was not a bad ending," cried Katje. "I think it was beautiful. I hope Vasco and the girl went straight to God."
The Vrouw Grobelaar sighed.
FROM her pocket Katje produced stealthily a clean-scoured wish-bone. The Vrouw Grobelaar was sleeping in her chair with tight-shut eyes. So I took one end of the bone, and we broke it, and the wish remained with Katje.
"Wish quick," I said.
She puckered her pretty brows with a charming childish thoughtfulness.
"I can't think of anything to wish for," she answered.
"Wish to be delivered from the sin of playing with witchcraft and dirty old bones!" The suggestion echoed roundly in the old lady's deep tones, and we, startled and abashed, looked up to find her wide awake, and in her didactic mood. The Vrouw Grobelaar never slept to any real purpose. One might have remembered that.
"Yes, witchcraft," she pursued. "For if bones are not witchcraft, tell me what is? When a Hottentot wants to find a strayed ox, he makes magic with bones, doesn't he? And the bones of a dead baboon are dangerous things too. Katje, throw that bone away."
Katje, who hated to be found out, threw it over the rail of the stoop into the kraal. When the good Vrouw had kept her steady eye on me for a few seconds, I threw my half after Katje's.
"I thought so," said the Vrouw Grobelaar, with a twitch of the lips like a smile stillborn.
"It's only a game," said Katje plaintively. "There's no harm in it."
The old lady shook her head.
"There's harm in things you don't understand," she pronounced. "There's harm in failing in love, for instance, if you don't know what you are doing. But witchcraft is worse than anything. You've seen how hard it is to make a Kafir doctor show his tricks. That's because he's never certain which is master, he or the devil. I knew a man once, a Peruvian, who burned his fingers badly."
A Peruvian, for the Vrouw Grobelaar, was any one for whose nationality she had no name. In Johannesburg it means a Polish Jew; in this instance I believe the man was a Greek.
"He was a smouser" (pedlar), she went on, "a little cowering man, with a black beard and a white face, who spoke Kafir better than he spoke the Taal. He sold thimbles and pills and hymn-books to the wives and daughters of Burghers, and grand watches and cheap diamonds to the Kafirs. It was a dirty little trade, and there was nothing about the man that streaked it with nobility. I remember a Scotch smouser, who was called Peter Piper, who sold pills like a chemist, and everybody liked him and respected him, till he had his great dispute with the Predikant at Dopfontein. But this little man was like a slimy thing made to crawl on its belly; and many is the time he would have been sjamboked from a door, were it not for—well, I don't know. But he was such a mean helpless thing, that, when he shrank away and looked up, with his white eyes staring and his lips parted, not the most wrathful Burgher could lift a whip.
"And even as he seemed to fear everything, the Kafirs certainly feared him. Kafirs, you know, go naked to all the little winds, and the breezes that will not hurt a thatch carry death to them. They are deaf to God. but the devil has but to whisper, and they hear. They bought shameful watches and sleepy diamonds from the Peruvian, as they kill a goat at the flowering of the crops—to appease something that might else visit them in the night. It was a thing much spoken of, and since even among the Burghers there are folks who dirty their fingers with magic and wish-bones—ay, you may well pout!—perhaps this had something to do with the fact that he was never flogged to the beacons and kicked across.
"In fact, there grew up about him a something of mystery, uncanny and not respectable. The little plodding man who went so meekly past our gates had a shadow one feared to tread on.
"You won't remember, but you will have heard of, the terrible to-do there was when Freda van der Byl disappeared. She was a most ordinary girl, perhaps eighteen years old, with a fine appetite, and nothing whatsoever about her that was strange or extraordinary: and yet one night she was missing, and it has never been set past doubt who saw her last. She was on the stoop in the afternoon, ate well at supper, went out then in the usual way to the hut where the tobacco-sacks were, and never came in again. She disappeared like a flame blown out, with never a spoor to give direction to those that sought her, without a shred of clothing on a thorn-bush to hint at a tale. She seemed to have fled clean out of the world—a big ten—stone girl with red hair melted like a bubble.
"And how they hunted for her! Old Johannes van der Byl and his sons went through the country like locusts, and with them were a mob of relations and friends, and some prospectors from the Hangklip who betted about it. Every kloof was scoured, every Kafir stad and kraal turned inside out, and the half of them burned. Their ponies streaked the long grass of the veld for miles; the men, their loaded rifles in hand, were abroad late and early; and yet they never found even a shoe-sole or a shred of hair to give them a clue. The witch-doctors would have been glad enough to find her, for they were flogged from morning to night, and Barend van der Byl beat the life out of one who did not seem to be doing his best. If Freda had been anywhere in the veld she would have been found, so fervently did the Kafirs hunt her in order to get a little peace and security.
"But nothing availed; no trace of her came to light, and even the women of her family grew tired of weeping. But one hot dusty afternoon, when her brothers Jacobus and Piet were riding home from the fruitless search, they came upon the Peruvian sitting under a bush smoking his yellow cigarettes. He glanced up at them as they went past, slavish as ever, yet still with that subtle significance of mien that made him noteworthy, and suddenly Jacobus reined up.
"'Piet,' he called, pointing with his sjambok. Look—our last chance!'
"Piet did not understand.
"'We have been cutting the Kafir doctors into ribbons,' explained Jacobus, 'and they were no good. But here is a wizard, and a white one, who won't wait to be flogged. If he can do nothing, then there is nothing to do. Let us bring him along, Piet.'
"Piet was a fat youth, deadly strong, who never spoke while there was work to do. He merely dropped from his saddle and caught the Peruvian deftly by the back of the neck. The smouser, of course, whined and squirmed, but Piet was the man who broke the bullock's neck at Bothaskraal, and he made no difficulty of tying the little man's wrists to his off stirrup. All his trinkets and fallals they left behind, and riding at a walk, talking calmly between themselves of the buck with wide horns that the Predikant's cousin missed, they dragged the little smouser to the homestead.
"'Several of the men had already come back, and when they heard Jacobus's plan, some were openly afraid and wished to have the Peruvian set loose. But Oom Johannes cursed at them and smacked Jacobus on the back.
"'My daughter is lost, and evil tongues are active about her,' he roared. 'I want her back, and I don't care how she comes. Come to supper, Jacobus; and afterwards you shall take your smouser into a hut and persuade him.'
"It was not an easy thing to make the Peruvian understand what was wanted of him. But by and by, when he had been argued with in Dutch and Kafir, and shown a skull that was found in a kloof, and the dol oss, and a picture in the Bible of the Witch of Endor, he suddenly grasped the idea, and grinned. Piet spat on the ground as the white teeth gleamed through the greasy black beard.
"'Yes, perhaps I can do that,' said the Peruvian, in the Taal. 'Perhaps, but one cannot be sure. You will pay, eh?'
"Jacobus wanted to threaten, but Oom Johannes would not have it.
"'Find my girl,' he said, 'and you shall be paid. Fifty pounds for any news of her, more if she is alive and well.'
"But the smouser explained that he could only find her if she were dead.
"'I can get her to speak, perhaps,' he said. 'More? No!'
"At last Jacobus and Piet took him into one of the big huts and gave him the little lamp that he demanded. He set it in the middle of the floor, and when they pulled to the door behind them the big domed hut was still almost dark, save for the ring of quiet light in the centre that flickered a little.
"'I wish he could do this kind of thing when I'm not there,' grumbled Jacobus, who hated creepy things.
"'Hush! be quiet!' commanded the Peruvian, and the two young men sat down, very close together, with their backs to the door.
"'The first thing that the Peruvian did was to take off all his clothes, and then he came into the dim circle of light mother-naked. He was a little man at best, but Piet said afterwards the muscles stood out under his swarthy skin in knots and ridges. And there he stood, facing them across the lamp, with his arms stretched forwards and his hands just fluttering loosely. Nothing more. His eyes were upturned and his face lifted, so that a streak of shadow rose across it, and the black beard against his neck rose and fell with his breathing. But for the gentle flutter of his hands and the heave of his chest he was still as stone— so still that for those who watched him all relation to human kind seemed to leave him, and he was a being alone in a twilight world of his own, a creature as remote and as little to be understood as the spirits of the dead.
"Have you ever, when wakeful in a hot night, with darkness all about you, called yourself by name again and again? It was a trick we dared sometimes when I was a girl. After a while it is something else that is calling, something of you but not in you, to which your soul answers at last; and if you go on till the will to call is no longer your own, the soul goes forth in response to it, and you are dead. And even so, gaunt in the beam of the lamp, the Peruvian seemed to insist upon himself, till the eyes of the watchers were for him only, till that which they saw was less the mean body of the smouser than the vehicle of the potent soul within.
"Piet was a youth as solid in mind as in body, and ere the scene grasped him against his will he says he saw with an angry impatience the flicker of a leer on the darkened face of the Peruvian. But it did not last. In a few minutes the two young Burghers were not the only ones whom the spell had subdued—the wizard was netted too. And then, as he stood, his hands still fluttering, they heard him drone a string of words, a dull chant, level like an incantation, inevitably apt to the hour and the event.
"They did not know how long they crouched, watching unwinkingly till their eyes grew sore; but at last it seemed that the posturing and the words had made something due. Jacobus started as though from sleep, and Piet, who was not till then frightened, looked up quickly. He caught sight of something—a shadow, a hint, a presence in the darkness behind the naked man, and knew, somehow, with a coldness of alarm, that IT had arrived. He barely realized this knowledge when the power of the quietness and the jugglery were rudely sundered, and the Peruvian, shrieking and clucking in his throat, dived towards them and tried to hide. He plunged frantically against the door, which gave and let him fall through, and in a moment, with the cold sweat of horror upon them, Piet and Jacobus struggled through after him and ran with still hearts for the house.
"But in that moment that he was jammed in the narrow doorway with his brother, Piet saw into the hut, and there was something there. There was another with them.
"They came fast to the lighted room upon the heels of the naked Peruvian, who fell on his face and writhed, weeping in sheer terror. There was alarm, and chairs overturned, and screaming of women, and it was long before they could get the smouser to his feet and bring him to speech. And then he would not go a foot away from them.
"'It came; it came!' he babbled, quivering under the table- cloth they had cast over his nakedness. 'It came—behind me!' and forthwith he began to stammer in his own strange tongue.
"'What was it?' demanded Oom Johannes, who was beginning to feel nervous.
"'There was a ghost!' was all that Piet could tell him. 'It frightened the smouser. It frightened all of us.'
"And by this time the smouser was babbling again, turning from one to the other, like one who excuses himself.
"'I did not bring it,' he wailed. 'I did nothing—only tricks. Just tricks to get money—and it came behind me. Mother of God! It came behind me!'
"Not one of them ventured beyond the door that night. They had not even the heart to turn the smouser out, though he expected nothing less, and clung howling to Piet's knees when the lad rose to bolt the door. But in the morning he was gone, and"—here the Vrouw Grobelaar became truly impressive—"he had not even fetched his clothes from the hut.
"So you see, Katje, what comes of messing your fingers with wish-bones."
"Pooh!" sneered Katje, "I'm not afraid of the ghost of the fowl."
When we came to the farmhouse, Katje and I, the Vrouw Grobelaar asked if we had been down by the spruit. We had— all the afternoon. There are cool and lonely places in the long grass beside the spruit, where its midsummer trickle of water sojourns peacefully in wide pools of depth and quiet.
"You can't mind that, anyhow," said Katje patiently.
"Why can't I?" demanded the Vrouw Grobelaar. "Why can't I mind that as well as anything else? I tell you, my girl, that things are not quite so simple as you take them to be. Even a herd of swine can house a devil, mark you. A bit of stick in the path can be a puff adder, and there are spells tucked away in the words of the Psalms even. And the spruit! Why, you crazy child, a spruit is just the place for things to lurk in wait. Yes, slippery things that have no name in man's speech. Even the Kafirs know of a spirit that lives in a pool."
Katje laughed, "Oh, Tagalash!" she said.
Tagalash is the little god who abducts girls who go down to fetch water in the evening, and carries them away to the dim world under the floor of the pools to be his brides. He lives in the water, and sings in the reeds, sometimes, of an evening and at other times works mischief among the crops and the cattle with spells that baffle the husbandman.
So Katje laughed as she mentioned him, and the Vrouw Grobelaar bridled ominously.
"You laugh," she said scathingly—"you laugh in the face of wisdom and counsel as they laughed in Sodom and Gomorrah. Yes; Tagalash, Katje! What have you to say against Tagalash? You think, I suppose, that he doesn't exist. I tell you, my girl, there's many a god of the heathen who is a devil of the Christians. That's what Christianity is for— to make devils of the gods of the heathen. And besides, this Tagalash is not like the others. He has been seen."
She paused. "Who by, Tante?" I asked, while Katje affected to whistle carelessly.
"Ah," she said, "you want to know? Well, Tagalash was seen and felt and had speech of by one who told it afterwards with white lips and fevered eyes that compelled belief. A Boer woman, mind you, and no liar; the young wife of an upright and well-seen Burgher, who had his farm an easy four hours from here.
"It is Folly Joubert I mean, who married when she was eighteen one Johannes Olivier, a youth with hair like an Irishman—all red. I had known her somewhat, and she was just that kind of girl in whom one feels the thrust of a fate. She was thin, for one thing, and without any of the comfortable comeliness that makes young men doubtful and old men sure. She had a face that was always rapt, lips that parted of themselves as if in wonder at great things newly seen, and big troubled eyes that spoke, despite her leanness and long legs, of a spring of hot blood crouching within her. Yes, she seemed doomed to something far and tragic, and outside the lives of decent stupid men.
"There was much bother, I believe, to persuade her to a marriage with Johannes, though he was rich enough.
"Perhaps it was hard on her, but then it must have been hard on him too. For he was another kind than she; just a big youth that ate four times a day with desperation, and lived the rest of the time as a tree lives. There is no harm in such men, though; it is they that people this world and have the right to guide it, for they put most into it and hew most from it; but for those who are born with a streak of heaven or hell in their fabric, they are heavy companions at the best. But these two married at last, and faced life like oxen that pull different ways in the same yoke. And within a month Johannes walked about with a face like one who tries to guess a riddle-troubled and puzzled; and Polly was walking elsewhere, carving herself a new religion from the stones of the bitterness of life.
"I have the rest from her own lips, as she told it when she came back. Yes, she went away—I will make that plain enough. It was after a quarrel with Johannes over some little grossness of no consequence that she walked forth from the house and down towards the spruit. It was between afternoon and evening, and she sought a quiet place to sit and prey on her heart. There was a pool that summer, deep and very black, lying between steep banks on which grew bushes and tall grass, and to this she came and sat by the edge of the water, and dabbled her long thin fingers in its coolness and let her thoughts surge in her.
"'I thought of death,' she said, as she sat in her chair and told of it—'of death, and peace, and hatred glutted, and dead enemies, and love, and sin. A wild storm of dreams, was it not? A grim tempest to lay waste a sore heart. And she only eighteen, with eyes like lakes on a mountainside!' As she told it, she cast back on her memory— you could see she was aching to strip her fault naked and scourge it before us all—'And the thoughts were like a sleeping draught to my anger,' she went on pitifully. 'I drowned my wrath in dreams of vengeance and sinful hopes of a joy to find in the future.'
"'I conjured up faces of eager, bold men who should court me, and one that I had thought on before—a small man, lean at the waist, who moved like a spark among burning wood, and laughed ere he struck.' Her finger traveled in the air, and he was plain to see.
"She went on: 'I was looking in the water between my hands, creating my lover by the spell of desire, and I could see his face in the vortex my fingers made as I moved them to and fro. I gazed and gazed and gazed, and then, suddenly, some fear gripped me, for the face became a face of a man, with the idle water swilling across it. But it was a face: my mind battled against the realization till the fact governed it. It was a face, brown and keen and smiling with a gleam of white teeth, and then a hand met my hand in the water and drew me forward. I did not drag back. I think I fell on my face, but here I have no memory.'
"When again she came to a sense of things, she was lying in a dim place where all that moved seemed shadows only. At first it was her thought that she was yet on the bank by the pool, but as her mind renewed its hold she knew this was not so. She breathed an air alien to her living nostrils, and knew that here she had no part in a world of human creatures, and the thought rose in her that she was dead, drowned in the pool, and had reached the next world. 'Can this be hell?' she wondered, as she rose to a sitting posture and strove to see about her.
"It was a grassed mound she sat on, in a kind of plain, and she heard the creaking of bushes about her where no wind breathed on her cheek. The dimness was not the part darkness of a summer night, but a shadow where no sun had ever shone, a barren gloom that was lugubrious and uneasy. A dozen feet from her all was blurred and not to be distinguished, but it seemed to her that many people moved round about her, and now and again there was a rustle of hushed voices, as of folk who met stealthily and spoke with checked breath. In the dimness shapes moved, faintly suggested to her eyes, and presently, though she had no thrill of fear, a loneliness oppressed her that nearly made her weep. She was not as one that has no comrade in the world, for such a one is at least kin by blood and flesh to all others. She was alone, as a living man in a tomb is alone.
"With a little fervor of troubled recollection, like a child reciting a psalm, she told us how she rose to her feet and gazed about her, pondering which way to take. And while she was yet doubtful a hand touched her elbow, and she started to face a man that had come from behind her. Staring at his face with wits clenched like a fist, the contours of the face in the water returned to her mind, the sharp brown face that had grown up in the middle of the countenance she dreamed upon, and she knew in a moment that here was the face again and the rest of the man with it.
"'I knew it at once when his teeth shone through his smile,' she said. 'He was not so tall as I, and very brown in that sorrowful light, but not black. There was a robe he wore from his neck to his ankles that left one arm bare and the little feet below its hem, and his head was bare with straight black hair upon it. His hand was on my arm, and he stood before me and looked in my face and smiled a little at me, very gently and timidly.'
"It seems he found her scarcely less strange than she found him. In his bearing was something of awe and wonder, while she stared with a mere surprise.
"'Are you a man?' she asked at length, stupidly.
"He smiled yet. 'No,' he answered gently. 'But oh, you are beautiful!'
"She replied nothing at first, and he went on with a soft voice like the voice of a tender child. 'I saw you in the water long ago, I looking up to you, you looking down to where I was hidden. I smiled to you and reached my hand, but there was no smile on your face, and I did not dare take you till—till this time. Then your hands were stretched forward, and as I clasped them you sank to me,—my beloved! my beloved!'
"His brown face glowed upon his words with a fire of worship. She started back from him with a quick terror, hands clasped and lips parted.
"'Tell me,' she cried, 'tell me, where am I? What is this place? Am I dead at last?'
"He soothed her. 'You are in my country,' he said very gently. 'Now it is your country, as I am yours. You are not dead but living, and brimming with the love I languish for; and here you will stay with me, and we will love one another very tenderly in the heart of my gloom, and you will be my bride.
"'Oh, listen to me!' he cried, when she would have answered. 'Many slim and delicate girls have come to me through the mirror of the pool, but none such as you, with a warm soul floating on your face and a bosom aching for love. When first I saw you I yearned for you, I coveted you. The thought of you was my food and drink, and stayed my eyes from sleep; I set my spell on the waters that they should slumber and hold your image unbroken, and now I have you; you are here with me. You are mine.'
"He was glowing with a kind of eagerness it hurts one to rebuff, and she watched him, her fears under control, with a growing wonder.
"'Yes,' she said slowly. 'It must be true, then—that old tale. You are Tagalash!'
"He smiled. I am Tagalash,' he answered.
"'But,' she said, 'I am white!' For no one had ever heard of any but Kafir brides for Tagalash.
"He shrank a little, but smiled yet beseechingly, as he would have her cease that part of the tale.
"'You are so beautiful,' he urged, come with me to my house, will you not?'
"But that she would not do, and moved not from her place on the grassed knoll throughout her stay in the shadows— something like a week.
"'I am the wife of Johannes Olivier,' she said, and her words sounded foolish in her own ears. 'I am a wife,' she persisted, there in that dead land of the black gods. 'I want to go back,' she cried like a strayed child. 'I want to go back. I am afraid. Take me back to the light.'
"'He tried to comfort her with gentle words and talk of his passion and her beauty, but to no effect. She shrank from the unnatural flesh of him; she panted as though the dust of tombs were in her nostrils; and at last he stood off, looking at her with a mild trouble, and then he went away, and she was sitting once more alone amid the traffic of hushed voices and moving shadows.
"'There came no night,' she told us, in a voice that quavered uncertainly, 'always that unlovely twilight only; and I sat on the grass and wept. She had no sensation of hunger or sleep in that world, the whole of her stay. She stayed in the same place, dreary and waiting, with no active hope and little fear—only a longing for the sunlight; and at last a dull pain of yearning for the rough red head and beefy texture of her human husband. A week, mind you—a week she stayed there thus, save when Tagalash would come up unheard to court her again.
"After that first time he was a more cautious lover, and sat at her feet with lowered eyes pleading with her. One answer always stilled him, and that was her cry of 'Take me back; I am afraid.'
"'You were not fashioned for a rude love,' he said to her once.
"'Ah,' she answered then, 'but there is that in me that welcomes a heavy hand and a strong arm.'
"'The others are like that,' he answered, as though speaking to himself. 'But they have no such hungry beauty as you.'
"'My beauty,' she told him, 'is a chance vessel for a mere woman's soul.'
"At last he became wistful, and seemed afraid to ask: for what he desired. 'But I can yet give to you,' he told her. 'Say what you would have. I can bring it you.'
"'Then give me back to my world,' she cried. 'Do that, and I will thank you on my knees.'
"He sighed. 'Is that all you desire?' he said. 'Supposing I granted you that, is there nothing you would take back with you?'
"'No,' she answered.
"'No charm?' he asked again. 'Not a charm to compel love? I can give you even that.'
"'Take me back,' she begged, 'and teach me how to win my husband to forgive me.'
"He smiled very sadly, and she could almost have pitied him, so poor he seemed, bereaved of his desire.
"'You are greater than Tagalash,' he said slowly, 'since you make a slave of him. You shall have what you will. Go back to your world, my beloved, my love that shall henceforth dread the still pools.'
"'So I came back,' she said, looking-round on us as though all were explained.
"'How?' we asked.
"'Why, I came,' she answered plaintively, and had no more to tell. She had been found sleeping on the grass near the spruit, after a week of absence during which the men of the district had combed the very bushes for a trace of her.
"'But the charm?' asked one of us. 'The charm to win forgiveness? What was that?'
"She looked timidly at the tall Johannes who stood by her chair in silence.
"'I have forgotten what it was,' she answered with wet eyes.
"'No,' he cried, bending to her lips. 'No! It is a true charm that, my kleintje.'"
"Good old Tagalash!" remarked Katje cheerfully.
THE HOME KRAAL
After sunset on a summer's day, when evening has overcome the oppression of the still heat and breezes grow up like thoughts, the world of veld becomes odorous, and every air has its burden of unforgettable scents.
As we sat in the stoop, steeped in a flood of shadow, looking down over the kraals to where the grasses are ever green about the spruit, the Vrouw Grobelaar spoke gently.
"I should remember this," she said, "after a hundred years of heaven. The winds of Mooimeisjes would call me even then."
Katje's hand moved in mine.
"It is home," said Katje. "It—it makes me want to cry."
The Vrouw Grobelaar smiled. "As for me," she answered, "it makes me think of nothing so much as that hollow beside Cornel's grave, where, in my time, I shall go to my long dreaming. This place has peace written large on its face; and ah! it is at home that one would like to lie at last. Yes, none of your damp churchyards for me! The home kraal, like a Boer vrouw; for the grave and the home are never quite two things to us Boers. How some have striven for the home kraal, that feared to lie with strangers. Allemachtag, yes!"
She moved a little in her armchair, and we waited in silence for the tale to come. Katje came closer to me, in that way she has, like a dear child or a little dog.
"The Vrouw van der Westhuizen," said the old lady, "had but one child, a son. Emmanuel, she called him, for a dozen poor reasons; and for him and in him she had her whole life. The poor, they say, are rich in poor things, and this lad grew to manhood with a multitude of mean little vices and dirty ways which showed like a sign on his pale weak face, and summed up the trivial soul within for you at the first glance. Most of us have cause to thank God that He has not written on our faces; but Emmanuel could have carried no writing large enough for his mother to read. Because he was weak and idle, two of her nephews lived on the farm, Barend and Peter van Trump, great slow true men, with hearts like children; yet she esteemed Emmanuel as much above them as they in truth, in all points of worth and virtue, were over him. Ah, but a mother is a traitor to the whole world.
"I remember this Emmanuel well. A bony small man of the color of straw, with eyes that moved too quickly and a cold hand, a body like a wisp of linen-cloth-so flimsy and slight—and some slenderness at the knee that made him shamble like a thief! Peter stood with a great brown hand on his shoulder, smiling at me with a frank open mouth and cheeks creased with pleasantry. When he laughed, his body shook mightily, and the motion of his hand made the other stagger. And the Vrouw van der Westhuizen stood there looking, with eyes like pools of pride for her son.
"There was nothing in the farm to hold Emmanuel, no charm in the veld nor interest in the work. He was barely a man when he would ride on to the dorp and its saloons, and in time he was there oftener and oftener, drinking and soiling his hands with all the strange foulness of life the English bring with them. We, the neighbors round about, marked it of course; but none thought much of Emmanuel and his doings; and the thing was little talked of till it became known that at last he was gone for good, and had betaken himself to live in a great town, among devilries that have no name in our clean Taal.
"It was a grievous blow for the Vrouw van der Westhuizen. From the time he departed, she became old; as she went about her affairs, the woe at her heart was plain to see. She was a stricken woman, the world had been cut from under her; and about her, now that her child was gone, she felt nothing familiar, but lived, dumb and bewildered, in a maze of strangers. Barend and Peter had no wits to console her. How, indeed, should they have hoped to console a mother thus bereft? The days lounged by inexorably, bringing no word of Emmanuel with them, and no mercy. Their footprints were the wounds upon the Vrouw van der Westhuizen's heart; and, in the end she sickened wearily and lay listless, due to death.
"Then only did the silence break and let through a word of news. Some one—I cannot remember now who it was—had been to the town to a law-case to be cheated of some land, and he brought back news of Emmanuel—news that he was deadly ill in a mean place, and lacking money. He told it shortly to the Vrouw van der Westhuizen, and she sent at once for Barend and Peter.
"'Get to your horses,' she told them, 'and bring my kleintje back to me. Be quick to bring him—why do you stand gaping like sick cows while he is dying? And take money. Take all the money that is in my box under the bed, in case he should need something. Get the box out quickly, now!'
"They obeyed her. In the box was the money of the house, as the Boers need to keep it, a great deal of money in sovereigns, very heavy to carry. But she would not even suffer them to count it, so they filled a bag with it, and Barend tied it to his belt, and then they caught the horses and started on the long trek to the town.
"It is a journey of fifteen days by wagon, yet those two, by killing horses—they who used all beasts so gently—did it in three, and on the fourth, much troubled by the great throng of people all about them, came to a narrow street, smelling of poor food, and found the house in which Emmanuel lay. A woman with a cruel face and naked breasts opened to them, staring at their great size and their beards, and showed them up a long stair to a room with a bed, from which Emmanuel looked up at them.
"It was a small room, tucked close under the roof, and held but the tumbled frowsy bed, an uneasy table and a chair. On the floor, clothes and boots lay heaped with old newspapers, and the place was hot with stale air. From the pillows, the face of Emmanuel met them with something of expectancy; and the two big men, fresh from the wind of the veld, saw with a quick dismay how his pale skin stood tight over the bones of him, and a clear pink burned like a danger lamp high up on each cheek.
"'I thought you would come,' said the sick man in a weak voice, 'I knew it. I was sure I should not die alone in this hole, while my mother's horses were sound. It is bad enough to die at all, but no man deserves to die away from home.'
"Peter kneeled down beside the bed and would have passed an arm under his shoulder. But he would not have it.
"'No need to slobber,' he said, with a note of contempt in the voice that rang so faintly. The woman, who was leaning in the door, laughed harshly, and a passing smile flickered over Emmanuel's face.
"'I couldn't live, could I, Flo?' he said to her. 'But I can die. You watch—it'll be worth seeing. What's that you have at your belt, Barend? Not money?'
"Barend nodded. 'Yes, it is money,' he said. 'The ou ma sent it, if you should need it.'
"'Need it!' Emmanuel laughed harshly.
"'God, but I do need it. When didn't I? How much is it, man?'
"'She would not have us stay to count it,' answered Barend. 'But it is a very great sum.' He loosened the bag from his belt. 'All gold,' he added, and poured the sovereigns in a heap on the tumbled bed.
"'God! said Emmanuel again, striving to sit up. The woman at the door uttered a short oath and came forward with parted lips and bent over the gold.
"'Laddie, it's a pile,' she said hoarsely. 'A jugfull!' Her twitching hands ploughed through the heap, and the coins tinkled among her fingers. She was glancing from one to another of the men, and drew forth her hand clenched on a full fist of sovereigns. Peter, still kneeling beside the bed, made a noise in his throat.
"She bent her look on him, a look of narrow warlike eyes and bared teeth, the first stare of a savage animal disturbed on its kill; but the big Boer met her with a face of calm.
"'The ou ma sent it for Emmanuel,' he said slowly, and rose to his feet.
"She snarled at him, but Barend, with his teeth clenched on his beard, moved to the door and stood there with his legs apart and his great hands on his hips, filling up the way. Emmanuel lay on his back, breathing a little hard, the color pulsing in and out on his cheeks and a twisted smile on his lips. She turned a second to him, as though to appeal, but saw him as he lay and said nothing.
"'Put that money, Emmanuel's money, back on the bed!' said Peter.
"She lifted it to her bosom as though to pouch it, but Peter moved his arm and she flung the coins suddenly on the floor, and laughed gratingly at him.
"'D'you see that, laddie?' she called to Emmanuel. 'Oh, you sneering devil, gasping there, ain't you got a word to say to me? Say, can't I have some of this cash? There's enough here to spare me a fistfull.'
"'Lift me up, Peter,' said Emmanuel. Peter raised him till he sat upright, and held him with a long arm about his shoulders. Emmanuel reached forward hands thin as films of milk, and shuffled the gold to and fro.
"'Can you have some?' he said, looking up at the woman. 'You! Yes, you man-wrecking pirate, go down on your knees and whine for it, beg for it, pray with clasped hands for it, and you shall take as much as you can grasp. Do that, d'you hear? I want to see you on your knees for once and groveling for a handful of sovereigns. Go on; get down with you!'
"Barend gave a short laugh. It was amusing of Emmanuel, he thought, to promise this on a condition so impossible. The woman spun on her heel and faced him sharply with bent brows and a heaving bosom.
"'Kneel, my beauty,' said Emmanuel again mockingly, but watching the woman as she stared at Barend. There was a kind of wonder on her dark cruel face as she studied the big Boer's serene countenance and masterful poise of head, and noted there the mild amusement which is the scorn of a good man.
"'Kneel now, and plead for it,' said Emmanuel again; and of a sudden a doubt came over Barend. There was a distress plain to see, something remorseful and newly born surging in this harlot; there was an appeal, fiercely shameful, in the hard eyes bent on his.
"Of a sudden she wheeled round and spat an awful curse at the sick man. 'Keep your damned money!' she went on, while the thick veins in her neck grew to dark ridges. 'D'you think you can buy everything? You've sold your life and your innocence for filth—d'you suppose it's all to buy? You an' me's in the same box, my boy—bad 'ems both, but you don't make a dog of me.'
"She turned to Barend. 'Let me pass, you big hulking—' she hesitated, looking at him.
"'Oh, you poor innocent,' she cried, with a laugh, and ran past him and out at the door.
"Emmanuel called after her, and bade her come back and take what she would, but her heels rattled on the stairway and she was gone.
"'Is that the strange woman?' asked Peter, quoting from the Proverbs.
"Emmanuel laughed. 'Strange as the devil,' he said, with his voice running weak. 'You see souls in this town, cousins—not bodies only, as on the farm. Souls that blush and bleed, I tell you. But go to the head of the stairway, Barend, and shout as loud as you can for Jim. Just shout "Jim"!'
"Barend went and roared the name half a dozen times. There came at last a man with a dirty coat buttoned to the neck, grimy, ill-shod and white-eyed, and to him Emmanuel, speaking from behind the heap of sovereigns, to which the man's evil pale eyes strayed every moment, gave orders.
"'Tell the boys,' he said, 'that there's a spree here tonight. Get the whole gang, Jim, and particularly Walters. And take what money you want, and send what is necessary up here. Steal what you must, you hound, but leave us short of nothing, or my big cousins here will cut you to ribbons. Is that not so, Barend?'
"'Whenever you please, Emmanuel,' said Barend.
"The man Jim took the money and went, and
Emmanuel lay in Peter's arm, picking at the gold.
"'Shall I count it for you?' said Peter at last.
"'God, no!' said Emmanuel. 'Leave it, man. It's luxury not to know how much it is.' A dribble of coins tinkled from the blanket to the floor. 'Don't pick them up,' he cried, as Barend stooped. 'This is like water in a long trek to me.' He picked up a handful of money and strewed it abroad. 'I can die,' he said, 'now I've money to throw away, and tonight there'll be the end.'
"It was an orgy that evening. There came men and women to that high room, where the evil man Jim had already disposed of bottles of spirits and of wine. The big Boers stood there like trees among poppies. 'Tis an evil, leering flower, the poppy, with its color of blood and love mounted on its throat of death. Barend and Peter, upright and still, stood at the head of the bed watching them as they entered, lean, cruel-mouthed dogs of the city, whose eyes went to the gold on the blanket ere they greeted the man that had bidden them thither. Emmanuel, propped in his pillows, his face a mask of hard mastery, his eyes like blurs of fire on a burned stick, looked at them as they came in, yet ever his eyes returned to the door, as though he sought some one who should yet come.
"Women spoke to him—handsome bold women with free lips, and eyes that commanded eyes of men, and these he barely answered. But a crisp step on the stairs brought the death spot hot and quick to his fevered cheeks, and there entered a man.
"A small man, a dark man! Barend, talking afterwards, with a pucker of wonder between his brows, said he was smooth. He had a face that was keen and alert without being hard; eyes that were quiet and yet judged; lips upon which there dwelt an armed peace and also a humorous curve. He seemed to have his own world, to blot from his consciousness that which displeased him; yet he himself was for those who looked upon him a man blocking the horizon of life. A great man, I judge—that is, a man great in the qualities which need but an aim to move mountains. God gives few such men an aim, or there would be more gods.
"Emmanuel spoke very quietly to him, but with no wheeze of weakness in his voice.
"'Good-evening, Walters,' he said.
"The newcomer but cast a glance over his shoulder. 'Ah!' he said, and his eye lighted on the gold, and his pleasant lip curled further.
"'Has your mother died?' he asked. 'I suppose that's why you're so gay. What a funny little beast you are, Van der Westhuizen!'
"'These are my cousins,' said Emmanuel.
"'They ought to suit you. They are as stupid as honest men, and as honest as stupid ones, This is Barend—that is Peter!'
"Walters looked up at them, and Peter held out a hand to him. He took it, and smiled, and when Barend saw the grace and friendship of that smile, he too gave his hand.
"'You have come to take Emmanuel home?' said Walters. 'Well, use him tenderly. If he is worth handling at all he is to be tenderly handled. But I am sure you will be gentle. You are too big to be rough.'
"He turned from them to a woman that was prattling near by, and at once entered her life, it seemed. She turned to him as one who worships.
"'Come, drink!' Emmanuel called to them. 'This is my farewell, you people. I've come to the jump-off place. Reach me a glass, somebody, and put something in it. What will you have, Walters? Help yourselves, all of you.'
"With chattering and laughter the bottles passed about, and a woman at the foot of the bed raised her glass with a flourish and drank to the sick man. 'You're game, boy,' she cried; 'you finish like a ferret!'
"Barend stood for three hours watching them, Peter by his side. 'It was like reading in Chronicles and Kings,' he said, when he related it later. 'There was a boil of business all about, and drinking and gabbling, and I saw faces, flushed and working, that I am sick to remember. The wine they drank came soon to possess them as Legion possessed the swine; in an hour they were lost to all reason and decency, and women were cursing in the voices of men and men weeping loosely like women. They cast off their outer garments when the room grew hot, and lounged half- naked; and of all of them, only two seemed to live aloof, like men among beasts—Emmanuel and the young man Walters.
"'This young man passed in and out like an eel in water. Nothing clung to him of all the filth in which he trod. He drank, but was not less the master of himself; he jested, but his laughter was the mirth of the pure in heart, without harshness in it, and they made him way and listened when he spoke; and even the gross, hot-eyed women dulled their terrible speech when he stood before them. The eyes of Emmanuel, propped in his bed, his blankets wet with the wine he spilled from his glass, were ever upon him. I think the boy admired him. Whenever he stirred, sovereigns dribbled to the floor, but he looked not once after them; he was all for watching Walters, who barely turned towards him. Ah, but he was very sick, our Emmanuel! His breath rasped as he drew it; there was a fire in his great eyes that made one tremble—that fire that makes you think of hell-fire and naked souls writhing in it. A look of savage hunger, but far off, as though desiring things not of earth!'
"A strange scene, was it not, for a chamber overshadowed by the wings of death. Towards midnight, Emmanuel sighed, and slipped down a little. Peter moved to lift him and started at the pinch of death on his face. His exclamation drew most of the others to look, but as they crowded near Emmanuel opened his eyes.
"'Walters,' he said faintly.
"'Well, my boy,' said Walters.
"'What-do-you-think-of-this?' Emmanuel asked, his weakness watering his speech.
"Walters laughed quietly. 'I'll tell you in the morning,' he said. 'But you're a good actor, my friend.'
"You'll see,' whispered Emmanuel, and closed his eyes again.
"Then Barend bade them all go forth, and after awhile, when he had taken one lewd man in his hands and cast him on the stair, they went, and the noise of their voices, raw and ungentle, filtered away. The two Boers were left at the bedside, among the bottles and the gold and the strewn clothes; and Emmanuel lay rigid, with a buzz in his throat and a spot of blood on his lips. Peter kneeled and prayed.
"But in a couple of hours, when his face had grown thin and his nose sharp, and his hands cold as clods, they saw he was dead, and spoke together of what they must do. They knew nothing of that treacherous web of law and custom which is the life of a city; they knew only that their feet were among pitfalls, and that they must move quickly if they would take Emmanuel away to the farm and the kraal. So while Peter went forth to bring three horses, Barend sought among the garments scattered about the room and dressed the thin body in them, and put his own broad-brimmed hat on the fair head that should henceforth need no shelter from the sun. When he had done, Peter returned, and came up the stairs quietly.
"They took the body of Emmanuel under the armpits, one on each side of him, and thus carried him down the stairs. A man met them on the way, his face bland and foolish in the glow of a candle he carried.
"'Drunk, eh?' he said, without particular curiosity. 'Almost dead, by the looks of him.'
"'Quite dead,' answered Barend, and they passed him and came down to the horses, hitched at the sidewalk.
"They put the body in the saddle, and rode on either side, close in, and Peter held it upright with a hand on its shoulder, as a man might conceivably ride by a comrade. There was yet no light of day, only a grayness that streaked the night sky, and a bitterness in the air like a note of mourning. Slowly, walking their sleepy horses, they passed along the streets, dark save where a lamp at a corner shed a yellow and dismal light about it. Creatures of the night, slouching here and there, looked at them; policemen, screening from the wind in dark corners, thrust forth heads; but they rode on, and none stopped them, and thus they came forth of the city and faced the veld again.
"They raised their faces to its freshness, familiar and friendly as the voice of one's kin, and pushed the horses to a trot, while behind them the blur of light that was the city paled and died down as the miles multiplied under their hoofs. Peter had the leading rein of the middle horse while Barend steadied its burden, and thus they traveled towards the east and home.
"When the sun was high, they no longer dared follow the road. Out of those they must meet and exchange words with, there would surely be some whom they could not deceive-some who had seen death before and knew the signs of it. So they pulled aside, and made for the high land of Baviaan's Nek, riding across the gray grass and among the yellow ant-hills till close on noon. Then, dipping to a hollow, where some willows cast a shade upon a pool of a spruit, they dismounted and laid the dead man in the cool, while they off-saddled the horses and rested themselves. There were biltong and bread in their saddle-bags, and tobacco they did not lack, and the need for food drove them to make a big meal. They were concerned with this so deeply that they did not notice that a Kafir, carrying the bundles which Kafirs always carry on the trek, had come up to them.