"He was an old Kafir, his wool gray and his skin rough with age, but his eyes were bright with the full of strength and peaceful with wisdom. He lay down at the pool's brink and drank, and then gave them good day.
"'Will the baas permit me to sit in the shade of the trees?' he asked. 'It is hot traveling.'
"He looked from them to the stretched body of Emmanuel as he spoke.
"'Sit over there, then,' said Barend, 'and see you keep quiet.'
"'Oh, I shall not wake that baas, at all events,' said the old Kafir, pointing to the body.
"Both the Boers were startled at this, but the man walked calmly to the farthest tree, and piled his bundles there.
"'We all have our troubles,' he said, as he shook out his brown blanket. 'Age for some of us, sorrow for others. And then there is death, too. I am not dead, at least.'
"'Why do you talk of death?' demanded Peter sharply.
"The old Kafir held up a finger. There was a kind of mirth in his motion. 'Hush, or you will wake him,' he replied. 'But I know all about death, except the taste of it. I know how it looks, and how it lies on the ground, and how it comes, and how it is concealed.'
"He raised his hard old face with eyes half-closed, and snuffled at the air.
"'And how it smells, too,' he said.
"'You will learn the taste of it in a minute,' cried Barend, springing to his feet with a white face. 'You old scarecrow, what is it you are hinting about? Do you take us for murderers?'
"The old Kafir sat down among his bundles and fumbled for his pipe. There was no concern on him; he had the still ease of one who comes upon his own special task, sees it, and knows he is the master of it. While Barend, shaking a little, stood gauntly over him, he filled his pipe, lit it, and blew forth a cloud of smoke.
"'Pooh!' he said. 'The baas gives too much importance to trifles. A dead man is of less worth than a living one. It is the baas I am interested in—not the carrion.'
"He spat very leisurely and took the pipe to his lips again.
"Barend, after a little hesitation, sat down again.
"'I have known white men,' said the old Kahr, leaning back against his tree, 'who scratched crosses in the ground, and traced them on their breasts with a finger, when they came upon death or the dead. That is a strong charm. And in the east, yonder, are others who spill wine on the earth. But in my tribe we neither make crosses nor waste liquor. We spit. Where is the baas going?'
"'Across Baviaan's Nek,' said Barend, very quietly.
"'Ah! That is a long way. Tonight the baas should camp by the huts that are over the drift where the great rocks are. There are Kafirs there who will not fear this luggage of yours. They will sell food and shelter, and refrain from curiosity. Will that serve the baas?'
"'Surely,' said Barend, and tossed him some tobacco.
"The old Kahr caught the horses for them and helped them to lift the dead man to the saddle. By this time the body had become stiff, and needed a constant effort to hold it steady. The sun was hot as they rode on, and the dust smoked up about the fetlocks of the horses. The stiff feet of the dead man were in the stirrups, and as now and again they broke into a short canter, he seemed as though he would stand up in his stirrups to look ahead.
"'So Emmanuel always did when he rode among ant-heaps,' said Peter once.
"Barend only grunted in reply; the strain on his arm and wrist was a heavy one.
"They camped that night at the huts the old Kafir had spoken of. The Kafirs there were of a large build, strong and silent. They glanced once or twice at the body, but said nothing.
Food was forthcoming—, and a big clean hut, and here the two Boers slept beside the corpse. It was only next morning, when they had mounted and were about to start, that one, with the head-ring of dignity about his scalp, gave a word of counsel.
"He stood at Barend's bridle, looking up to him with a sort of pity.
"'The day will be hot, baas,' he said, 'and that will be doubly burdensome. So you may know that beyond the Nek, where the mimosas grow on a damp plain, the ground is very soft. There are huts there, and shovels.'
"Barend nodded his thanks, and they rode through the drift and up the Nek. It was, as the Kafir had predicted, a hot day. One of those days which come in the throng of the summer, when the sun is an oppressor, ruthless and joying in pain, when the earth is dead with heat and dryness and the very air forbears to take a freedom I When they came down the slopes beyond the crest, the flanks and rumps of the horses were slimy with running sweat, and red nostrils spoke of distress. The dead man sat in the saddle with a thin show of eyeball under each lowered lid, and a gleam of teeth above the sunken lower lip, yet for all the world like one that follows a purpose, like one guiding himself to a steadfast end. In the face there was a growing hue that does not visit the living, but the hat-brim cast a shadow over it that lent it an effect of deep gravity and solemn intention.
"'He means to reach the farm.' said Barend, after glancing at him.
"Peter drew rein. 'And yet,' he said, 'he will never do it if we travel thus. We killed horses to make the city in three days; going at this rate, it will take us six to return.'
"'Well,' replied Barend, 'what else is there to do?'
"'Only one thing,' said Peter, 'your horse is the weight- carrier. You must take Emmanuel over your saddle-bow, and we must kill more horses.'
"'But a dead man,' said Barend. 'It is like a blasphemy.'
"'We can do nothing else,' said Peter, and after a little more talking they made the change."
The Vrouw Grobelaar paused and looked at us. Katje was tight in the crook of my arm.
"Words limp while horses stride free," she said, "but conceive that ride. Taking horses where they could find them, they rested no more, nor drew rein save to fill and light their pipes. From Baviaan's Nek they traveled at the canter across the mimosa swamp, and so by the Rhenoster Drift to Ookiep, where Barend's horse fell and he and that other rolled on the veld together. When Peter had found and brought another horse, they made one stage to Jantje's Kraal, and thence, galloping wordless through the night, to Zwartvark. Long rides, you will say! Aye, rides to remember; but think of the brimming stillness of the journey, hushed and governed by that silent companion, while thought could not stray nor fancy escape from the death that chased at the elbow of each. When, on the third morning, as the sun came spouting up from the low country, they saw afar the roof that was their goal, Peter cried aloud like a child awaking from evil dreams.
"Ere noon their hoofs knocked on the stones in the front kraal, and they bore the body to the shade of the tobacco shed.
"'And now,' said Peter, when that was done, 'who is to tell the ou tante?'
"Barend leaned at the door-post with his arm cast up over his face and said nought, but there came from the house a girl of the neighborhood, who laid a finger to her lips.
"'Hush,' she said. 'Make no noise about this house. Where have you been, the two of you? An hour earlier, and you had been in time. As it is, the Vrouw van der Westhuizen died with no kin about her.'"
"Do not think," said the Vrouw Grobelaar, looking at me with a hard unwinking eye, "that idle men should have pretty wives. Though Katje will lose that poppy red-and- white when she begins to grow fat. Still—"
Katje made an observation.
"Her mother," pursued the Vrouw Grobelaar, still holding me fixed, "spent seventeen years in one room, because she could not go through the door; and when she died they took the roof on and hoisted her out like a bullock from a well. But as I was saying, it is not well that idle men—those with leisure for their littlenesses, like schoolmasters and doctors and Predikants should have pretty wives, or they tend to waste themselves. A man with real work and money matters and the governing of cattle and land and Kafirs to fill his day, for such a one it is very well. Her prettiness is an interval, like the drink he takes in the noonday. But for an idle man it becomes the air he breathes. He is all-dependent on it, and it is a small and breakable thing.
"Look how men have been wrecked upon a morsel of pink-and- white, how strong brains have scattered like seed from a burst pod for a trifle of hunger in a pair of eyes! I remember many such cases which would make you stare for the foolishness of men and the worthlessness of some women. There was the Heer Mostert, Predikant at Dopfontein, who fell to blasphemy and witchcraft when his wife Paula was sick and muttered emptily among her pillows."
The old lady shifted in her wide chair and took her eyes from me at last.
"She was pretty, if you like," she said. "A tall girl, with a small red mouth, and hair that swathed her head like coils of bronze. The Predikant, who had more fire in him than a minister should have, and more fullness of blood than is good for any man, spent the half of his life in the joy of being near to her. She was full in the face and slow with a sleek languor, but on his coming there was to see a quickness of welcome spread itself in her. She would flush warmly, and her eyes would cry to him. Their love glowed between them; they were children together in that mighty bond. So when a spring that came down with chill rains smote Paula with a fever, and laid her weakly on her bed, the Predikant was a widower already, and walked with a face white and hard, drawn suddenly into new lines of pain and fear.
"Women are strange in sickness. Some are infants, greatly needing caresses and the neighborhood of one tender and familiar. Others grow bitter, with an unwonted spite and temper, venting their ill-ease on all about them. But after the first, Paula was neither of these. The sense of things left her, and she lay on her bed with wide eyes that saw nothing and spoke brokenly about babies. For she had none. The doctor, a man of much brisk kindness, whose face was grown to a cheerful shape, frowned as he bent above her and questioned her heart and pulse. Paula was very ill, and as he looked up he saw the Predikant, tall and still, standing at the foot of the bed, gazing on the girl's face that gave no gaze back; and there was little he could say.
"'Speak to her,' he told him.
"The Predikant kneeled down beside her, and took her hand, that pinched and plucked upon the quilt, into his.
"'Paula!' he said gently. 'Wife!' and oh! the yearning that shivered nakedly in his voice.
"'Little hands,' moaned Paula weakly—'little hands beating on my breasts. Little weak hands; oh, so little and weak!'
"The Predikant bowed his head, and the doctor saw his shoulders bunch in a spasm of grief.
"'Paula!' he called again. 'Paula, dear. It is I—John. Don't you know John, Paula? Won't you answer me, dear?'
"With eyes shut tight, he lifted a face of passionate prayer.
"'Say daddy!' said Paula, crooning faintly. 'Say daddy.'
"The doctor passed his arm across the Predikant.
"'Come away,' he said gently. 'This does no good. Come away, now. There is plenty of hope.'
"He led him outside, rocking like a sightless man. When he sat down on the edge of the stoop, he stared straight before him for a little while, fingering a button on his coat till it broke off. Then he flung it from him and laughed—laughed a long quiet laugh that had no tincture of wildness.
"'Look here,' said the doctor, 'unless you go and lie down, you'll not be fit to help me with Paula when I need you. Lie down or work, whichever you please. But one or the other, my man.'
"'Suppose,' said the Predikant quietly—'suppose I go and pray?'
"'That'll do capitally,' answered the doctor. 'But pray hard, mind. It might even do some good. There's nothing certain in these cases.'
"'I have just been thinking that,' said the Predikant, turning to him with a face full of doubt. But we can try everything, at any rate.'
"'We will, too,' said the doctor cheerfully; and then the Predikant passed to his room to pour out the soul that was in him in prayer for the life of Paula.
"It was a great battle the doctor fought in the dark room in which she lay. When late that night the Predikant, his face dull white in the ominous gloom, came again to the rail at the foot of the bed, his hand fell on something soft that hung there. It was Paula's long bronze hair they had cut off for coolness to her head.
"The doctor did not wait for the question.
"'There will be a crisis before day,' he said.
"'What does that mean?' asked the other. The doctor explained that Paula would rise, as it were, to the crest of a steep hill, whence she would go down to life or death as God should please.
"'But what can we do?' demanded the Predikant.
"'Very little,' replied the doctor. 'Beyond the care I am giving her now, the thing is out of our hands. We can only look on and hope. There is always hope.'
"'And always hope betrayed,' said the Predikant. 'But is she worse now than she was this afternoon when she babbled of the little hands?'
"'Yes,' answered the doctor.
"'But I prayed,' said the Predikant, with a faint note of argument and question.
"'Quite right, too,' replied the doctor.' Go and pray again,' he suggested.
"The Predikant shook his head.' It is wasting time,' he whispered, and turned to tiptoe out. But at the door he turned and crept back again.
"'It is my wife, you see,' he said mildly—'my wife, so if one thing fails we must try another. You see?'
"The doctor nodded soothingly, and the Predikant crept out again.
"The doctor sat beside the bed and watched the sick woman, and heard her weak murmur of children born in the dreams of fever. It was a still night, cool, and hung with a white glory of stars, and the point at which life and death should meet and choose drew quickly near.
There was this and that to do, small offices that a woman should serve; but the doctor had ordered the women away and did them himself. He was a large man, who continually fell off when he mounted a horse, but in a sick-room he was extraordinarily deft, and trod velvet footed. So in the business of leading Paula to the point where God would relieve him time went fast, and presently he knew the minute was at hand.
"He was sitting, intent and strung, when he heard from the garden outside the house a bell tinkle lightly. He frowned, for it was no time for noises; but it tinkled again and yet again, louder and more insistent, while a change grew visibly on the face of the sick woman, and he knew that the issue was stirring in the womb of circumstance. Then, brazenly, the bell rang out, and with an oath on his breath he rose and slipped soundlessly from the room.
"When he reached the garden all was still, and he loosed his malediction upon the night air. But even as he turned to go back the bell fluttered near at hand, and he dived among the bushes to silence it He nearly fell over one that kneeled between two big shrubs and wagged a little ram bell.
"'What in hell is this?' demanded the doctor fiercely, seizing the bell.
"'It is me,' answered a voice, and the Predikant rose to his feet. 'Be careful where you tread. There are things lying about your feet you had better not touch. Has it done her any good?'
"'You stricken fool!' cried the doctor, 'do you know no better than to go rattling your blasted bells about the place tonight? You're mad, my man—mad and inconvenient.'
"'But is she better?' persisted the Predikant.
"'I'll tell you in ten minutes.' replied the doctor. 'But if you make any more noise you'll kill her, mind that.'
"The Predikant went with him to the stoop, and stayed there while the doctor returned to the bedside. At the end of an interval he was out again, and took the husband by the arm.
"'It's over,' he said. 'She's doing finely. Sleeping like a child. You can thank God now, Mynheer Mostert.'
"The Predikant stared at him dumbly.
"'Thank God, did you say?' he asked at last.
"'And me,' answered the doctor, smiling.
"'I do thank you,' answered the Predikant. 'I do thank you from my heart, doctor. But for the rest—'
"And here, with a voice as even as one who speaks on the traffic of every day, with a calm face, he poured forth an awful, a soul-wracking blasphemy.
"'Here!' cried the doctor, startled. 'Draw the line somewhere, Predikant. That sort of thing won't do at all, you know.'
"'Now let me see my wife,' said the Predikant; and after a while, when he had warned him very solemnly on the need for silence, the doctor took him in and showed him Paula, thin and shorn, sleeping with level breath. The Predikant looked on her with parted lips and clenched hands, and when he was outside again he turned to the doctor.
"' I value my soul,' he said simply. 'But it is worth it.'
"'I haven't a notion what you are gibbering about,' answered the doctor, who had a glass in his hand. 'But there's long sleep and a dream killer in this tumbler, and you've to drink it.'
"'I need nothing,' said the Predikant, but at the doctor's urgency he drank the dose, and was soon in his bed and sleeping.
"Next day, when he was let in to Paula's bedside, she smiled and murmured at him, and nodded weakly when he spoke. The doctor warned him about noise.
"'We've won her back,' he explained, 'and she's going to do well. But she has had a hard time, and there's no denying she is very weak and ill. So if you go back to your bell— ringing or any of those games you'll undo everything. She's to be kept quiet, do you hear?'
"'I hear,' answered the Predikant. 'There shall be stillness. Not that it matters for all your words, but there shall be stillness.'
"'I warn you,' retorted the doctor seriously, 'that it matters very much. You're off your axle, my friend, and I shall have to doctor you. But if I hear of any foolishness, Predikant or no Predikant, I'll have you locked up as sure as your name's Mostert.'
"He left him there, and started through the garden to his cart that stood in the road. On his way he stubbed his foot against something that lay on the earth—a great metal cup. He picked it up.
"'I am not a heathen,' he said, as he brought it to the Predikant, 'and therefore a Communion-cup is no more to me than a sardine tin, when it is out of its place. I don't want to know what you were doing out here the other night, my friend; but you had better put this back in the Kerk before somebody misses it.'
"The Predikant took it from him, but said nothing.
"'And look here,' went on the doctor, 'it was my skill and knowledge that saved your wife. Nothing else. Good-day.'
"As he drove off, he saw the Predikant still standing on the stoop, the great cup, stained here and there with earth, in his hand.
"From that hour Paula mended swiftly. Even the doctor was surprised at the manner in which health sped back to her, and the young roses returned to her cheeks.
"'There's more than medicine in this,' he said one day. 'Do you know what it is, Predikant?'
"'Yes,' said the Predikant.
"'You do, eh? Well, it's clean young blood, my friend, and nothing else,' answered the doctor, watching him with a slight frown of shrewdness.
"The Predikant said nothing. For days there had been a kind of gloom on him, lit by a savage satisfaction in the betterment of his wife. His manner was like a midnight, in which a veld-fire glows far off. He had grown thinner, and his face was lean and gray, while in his eyes smouldered a spark that had no relation to joy or triumph.
"'Clean young blood,' repeated the doctor. 'No miracles, if you please.' He thought, you see, he had divined the Predikant's secret.
'I'm a man of science,' he went on, 'and when I come across a miracle I'll shut up shop.'
"Paula, from her pillows, heard them with a little wonder, and she was not slow to see the trouble and change in her husband's haunted face. So that night, when he came to say good-night to her, she drew his hand down to her breast, and searched for the seed of his woe.
"'You look so thin and ill, my dear,' she said gently. 'You have worried too much over me. You have paid too great a price for your wife.'
"She felt him tremble between her arms.
"'A great one,' he answered, 'but not too great.'
"'Not?' she smiled restfully, as he lifted his face from her bosom and looked into her eyes.
"'Never too great a price for you,' he said. 'Never that.'
"'My love!' she answered, and for a while they were silent together.
"Then she stirred. 'Do you know, John,' she said, 'that you and I have not prayed together since first this sickness took me? Shall we thank God together, now that He has willed to leave us our companionship for yet a space?'
"'No!' he said quietly.
"'Dear!' She was surprised. 'I was asking you to thank God with me.'
"He nodded. 'I heard you, but it serves no purpose. God forgot us, Paula.'
"His eyes were like coals gleaming hotly.
"'I prayed,' he cried, 'and yet you slipped farther from me and nearer the grave. I strewed my soul in supplication, and there was talk of winding-sheets. And then, in the keen hour of decision, when you tilted in the balance, I sought elsewhere for aid; and while I defiled all holiness, ere yet I had finished the business, comes to me that doctor and tells me all is well. What think you of that, Paula?'
"She had heard him with no breaking of the little smile that lay on her lips—the little all-forgiving smile that is the heritage of mothers,—and now that he was done she smiled still.
"'I remember the old tales,' she answered.
"'How does the witch call the devil, John? Water in the Communion-cup, bread and blood and earth—is that it? and two circles—two, is it?'
"'Three,' he corrected.
"'Ah, yes; three.' She laughed soothingly, 'You poor muddled boy,' she murmured. 'Do you prize me so much, John? Poor John. You must let me be wise for both of us, John. I am not afraid of the devil, at all events.'
"'Nor I,' he answered, 'so long as you are well.'
"'But I am getting well now,' she answered, 'And I do want you to pray with me, dear. Put your head down, dear, and let me whisper to you.'
"She soothed him gently and sweetly, buttressing his weakness with her love. How can I know what she said or what he answered? She wrought upon him with the kind arts God gives a woman to pay her for being a woman, and soon she had softened something of the miserable madness that possessed him, and he kneeled beside the bed, sobbing rendingly, and prayed. Her hand lay on his head, and after a while, when the violence had passed by, he was taken with a serene peace.
"He bade her good-night, tenderly.
"'Good-night,' she answered, 'and, John—I would that I could give you half of what you would have given for me.'
"As he went out at the door he saw her face smiling at him, with a great warmth of love and pity transfiguring it.
"'Nest morning, when the doctor came, he stayed near an hour in her room, and then came to the Predikant.
"'Just tell me,' he said to him,—'just tell me straight and short, what you did to your wife last night.'
"The Predikant told him in a few words what had passed between them, while the doctor watched him and curled his lip.
"'Exactly,' he said, when the Predikant had done. 'Quite what I should have guarded against in you. Now you may go to your wife as quickly as you like. She is dying!'
"It was so. She died in his arms in half an hour, with the little smile of baffled motherhood yet on her lips."
Katje clenched her hands and looked out to the veld in silence.
"After all," said the Vrouw Grobelaar weightily, "a coward is but one with keener eyes than his fellows. No young man fears a ghost till it is dark, but the coward sees the stars in the daytime, like a man at the bottom of a well, and ghosts walk all about him.
"A coward should always be a married man," she added, "You may say, Katje, that it is hard on the woman. It is what I would expect of you. But when you have experience of wifehood you will come to the knowledge that it is the man's character which counts, and it is the woman's part to make up his deficiencies. With what men learn by practicing on their wives, the world has been made.
"If you would cease to cackle in that silly fashion I would tell you of Andreas van Wyck, the coward—a tale that is known to few. Well, then."
"He was a bushveld Boer, farming cattle on good land, not a day's ride from the Tiger River. His wife, Anna, was of the de Villiers stock from over the borders of the Free State, a commandant's daughter, and the youngest of fourteen children. They were both people of a type common enough. Andreas was to all seeming just such a Burgher as a hundred others who have grown rich quietly, never heard of outside their own districts, yet as worthy as others whom every one nods to at Nachtmaal. Anna, too, was of an everyday pattern, a short plump woman, with a rosy solemn face and pleasant eyes—a sound Boer woman, who could carry out her saddle, catch her horse and mount him without help. You see, in her big family, the elders were all men, and most had seen service against the Kafirs, and a girl there won esteem not by fallals and little tripping graces, but by usefulness and courage and good fellowship. She saw Andreas first when he was visiting his mother's aunt in her neighborhood. There was shooting at a target, for a prize of an English saddle, and no one has ever said of him that he was not a wonderful shot. He carried off the prize easily, against all the Boers of those parts, and Anna's father and brothers among them. A few months later they were married.
"They drove from Anna's home to Andreas' farm on the bushveld in a Cape cart with two horses, and sat close under the hood while the veld about them was lashed with the first rains of December. It was no time for a journey by road, but in those days the country was not checkered with railway lines as it is now, and Anna had nothing to say against a trifle of hardship. For miles about them the rolling country of the Free State was veiled with a haze of rain, and the wind drove it in sheets here and there, till the horses staggered against it, and the drum of the storm on the hood of the cart was awesome and mournful. Towards afternoon, after a long, slow trek, they came down the slope towards Buys' Drift, and Andreas pulled his horses up at the edge of the water.
"The rains had swelled the river to a flood, and it ran with barely a ripple where ordinarily the bushes were clear of the water. Full a hundred and fifty yards it spanned, and as they looked, they saw it carry past a dead ox and the rags of uprooted huts.
"'We can never cross till it goes down,' said Andreas. 'I am sorry for it, but there is no choice. We must go back to your father's house.'
"Anna pressed his arm and smiled.
"'You are joking,' she said. 'You know well that I will not go back there tonight for all the floods in ten years. No girl would that valued her husband and herself.'
"'But look at the drift!' he urged.
"'It is a big head of water,' she agreed. 'I was once before upset in such a flood as this. You must head them up-stream a little, and then strike down again to the opposite bank.'
"'Not I,' he answered. 'I am not going to drown myself for a trifle of pride, nor you either. We must go back.'
"She shook her head. 'Not that!' she replied. 'Give me the reins and the whip.' Before he could resist she had taken them from his hands. 'Put your feet on our box,' she directed, 'or the water will float it away. Now then!'
"She drew the whip across the horses' quarters, and in a minute they were in the river, while Andreas sat marveling.
"'You understand that it was first necessary to move up- stream to a point in the middle of the river. She steadied the horses with a taut hold on the reins, for her young wrists were strong as iron, and spoke to them cheerily as the flood leaped against their chests, and they stood and hesitated. The rain drove in their faces viciously: Andreas, his face sheltered by the wide brim of his hat, had to rub away the water again and again in order to see; but Anna knit her brows and endured the storm gallantly, while with whip and rein and voice she pushed the team on towards the place of turning.
"The rushing of the water filled their ears, and before them, between the high banks of the Vaal, they saw only a world of brown water, streaked with white froth, hurling down upon them. It rose above the foot-board and swilled to the level of the seat. The horses, with heads lifted high, were often, for an anxious moment or two, free of the shifting bottom and swimming. A tree, blundering down- stream, struck the near wheel, and they were nearly capsized, the water rushing in over their knees. As they tilted Andreas gave a cry, and shifted in his place. Anna called to her horses and knit her brows.
"At last it was time to humor them around, and this, as I need not tell you, is the risky business in crossing a flooded drift. With somewhat of a draw on the near rein, Anna checked the team, and then, prodding with her whip, headed the horses over and started them. They floundered and splashed, and Andreas half rose from his seat, with lips clenched on a cry. The traces tightened under the water, a horse stumbled and vanished for a moment, and, as the cart tilted sickeningly, the man, ashen-faced and strung, leaped from it and was whirled away.
"The water took him under, drew him gasping over the bottom, and spat him up again to swim desperately. His head was down-stream, and, as there was a sharp bend half a mile below, he had no extraordinary difficulty in bringing his carcass to shore. He lay for a minute among the bushes, and then ran back to see what had become of the cart, the horses, and his wife. He found them ashore, safe and waiting for him, and Anna wringing the wet from her hair as she stood beside the horses' heads.
"'You are not hurt?' she asked, before he could speak. Her face was grave and flushed, her voice very quiet and orderly.
"'No.' he said.
"'Ah!' she said, and climbed again into the cart, and made room for him in the place of the driver.
"That was how he discovered himself to his wife. In that one event of their wedding-day he revealed to Anna what was a secret from all the world—perhaps even from himself. He was a coward, the thing Anna had never known yet of any man—never thought enough upon to learn how little it may really matter or how greatly it may ruin a character. When her brothers, having drunk too much at a waapenschauw, wished to make a quarrel quickly, they called their man a coward. But for her it had been like saying he was a devil— a futile thing that was only offensive by reason of its intention. And now she was married to a coward, and must learn the ways of it.
"They spoke no more of the matter. Anna shrank from a reference to it. She could not find a word to fit the subject that did not seem an attack on the man with whom she must spend her life. They settled down to their business of living together very quietly, and I think the commandant's daughter did no braver thing than when she recognized the void in her husband, and then, holding it loathsome and unforgivable, passed it over and put it from her mind out of mere loyalty to him.
"The years went past at their usual pace, and there occurred nothing to ear-mark any hour and make it memorable, till the Kafirs across the Tiger River rose. I do not remember what men said the rising was about. Probably their chief was wearied with peace and drunkenness and wanted change; but anyhow the commando that was called out to go and shoot the tribe into order included Andreas, the respected Burgher and famous shot. The feldkornet rode round and left the summons at his house, and he read it to Anna.
"'Now I shall get some real shooting,' he said, with bright eyes.
"She looked at him carefully, and noted that he lifted down his rifle with the gaiety of a boy who goes hunting. It brought a warmth to her heart that she dared not trust.
"'It is a pity you should go before the calves are weaned,' she said.
"'Pooh! You can see to them,' he answered.
"'But you could so easily buy a substitute. It would even be cheaper to send a substitute,' she urged half-heartedly.
"You see she had no faith at all in his courage. The years she had lived with him had brought forth nothing to undo the impression he had left in her mind when he sprang from the cart and abandoned her in the middle of the Vaal River, and this emergency had awakened all her old fear lest he should be proclaimed a coward before the men of his world.
"'I dare say it would be cheaper and better in every way,' he answered with some irritation. 'But for all that I am going. This is a war, the first I have known, and I am not going to miss the chance. So you had better get my gear ready!'
"With that he commenced to tear up rags and to oil and clean his rifle.
"She bade him adieu next day and saw him canter off with some doubt. He had shown no hesitation at all in this matter. From the time of the coming of the summons he had been all eagerness and interest. It might have led another to think she had been wrong, that the man who feared water feared nothing else; but Anna knew well, from a hundred small signs, that her husband had no stability of valor in him, that he was and would remain—a coward.
"Next day the fighting had commenced, and Anna, working serenely about her house, soon had news of it. There was a promise of interest in this little war from the start. The commando, under Commandant Jan Wepener, had made a quick move and thrust forward to the crown of the little hills that overlook the Tiger River and the flat land beyond it, which was the home of the tribe. Here they made their laager, and it was plain that the fighting would consist either of descents by the Burghers on the kraals, or of attacks by the Kafirs upon the hills. Either way, there must be some close meetings and hardy hewing, a true and searching test for good men. The young Burgher that told her of it, sitting upon his horse at the door as though he were too hurried and too warlike to dismount and enter, rejoiced noisily at the prospect of coming to grips.
"Anna puckered her brows. 'It is not the way to fight,' she said doubtfully. 'A bush and a rifle and a range of six hundred yards is what beat the Basutos.'
"'Pooh!' laughed the young Burgher. 'You say that because your husband shoots so well, and you want him to be marked for good fighting.'
"She frowned a little, inwardly accusing herself of this same meaning. She would gladly have put these thoughts from her, for brave folk, whether men or women, have commonly but one face, and she hated to show friendship to her husband and harbor distrust of him in her bosom. When the young Burgher at last rode away, galloping uselessly to seem what he wished to be—a wild person of sudden habits— she sat on the stoop for a while and thought deeply. And she sighed, as though pondering brought her no decision, and went once more about her work, always with an eye cocked to the window to watch for any rider coming back from the laager with news of affairs.
"But there was a shyness on both sides for a week. The Kafirs had not yet ripened their minds to an attack on the hills, nor had the Burghers quite sloughed their custom of orderliness and respect for human life. There was a little shooting, mostly at the landscape, by those whose trigger- fingers itched; but at last a man coming back with a hole in his shoulder to be doctored and admired halted at the door and told of a fight.
"He sat in a long chair and told about the pain in his shoulder, and opened his shirt to show the wound. Anna leaned against the door-post and heard him. Outside his brown pony was rattling the rings of the bit and switching at flies, and she perceived the faint smell of the sweat- stained saddlery and the horse-odour she knew so well. Before her, the tall grimy man, with bandages looped about him, his pleasant face a little yellow from the loss of blood, babbled boastfully. It was a scene she was familiar with, for of old on the Free State border the Burghers and the Basutos were forever jostling one another, and—I told you her father was a commandant!
"'But tell me about the battle,' she urged.
"'Allemachtag!' exclaimed the wounded man. 'But that was a fight! It was night, you know, about an hour after the dying of the moon, and there was a spit of rain and some little wind. The commandant was very wakeful, I can tell you, and he had us all out from under the wagons, though it was very cold, and sent us out to the ridge above the drift. And there we lay in the long grass among the bushes on our rifles, while the feldkornet crawled to and fro behind us on his belly and cursed those who were talking. I didn't talk—I know too much about war. But your man did. I heard him, and the feldkornet swore at him in a whisper.'
"'What was he saying?' Anna asked quickly.
"'Oh, dreadful things. He called him a dirty takhaar with a hair-hung tongue, and—'
"'No, no!' cried Anna impatiently. 'What did my husband say, I mean? What was he talking about when the feldkornet stopped him?'
"'Oh, he was just saying that it would be worth turning out into the cold if only the Kafirs would come. And then he cried out, 'What's that moving?' and the feldkornet crawled up and cursed him.'
"'Go on about the fight,' said Anna, looking from him, that he might not see what spoke in her eyes.
"'Yes. Well, I was just getting nicely to sleep, when somebody down on my left began firing. Then I saw down the hill, the flashes of guns, and soon I could hear great lumps of pot-leg screaming through the air. They are firing a lot of pot-leg, those Kafirs. I fired at a flash that came out pretty regularly, and by and by it ceased to flash. Then, as I rose on my knees, a great knob of pot-leg hit me in the shoulder, and I cried out and fell down. Your husband came to me and helped me to go back to the rocks, and soon after all the shooting stopped. The Burghers found three dead Kafirs in the morning, so we won.'
"'You were very brave,' said Anna.
"'Yes, wasn't I? And so was your husband, I believe,' said the wounded man. 'I couldn't see him, but I've no doubt he was. They'll try to rush the drift again tonight.'
"'What makes you think so?' Anna demanded, starting.
"'Oh, they've been gathering for some days,' answered the other. 'It's what they are trying to do. You see there are no farms to plunder on the other side of the river, so they must cross.'
"'I see,' said Anna slowly.
"When he was ready, she helped the wounded man again to his saddle, and saw him away, then turned, with the light of a swift resolution in her eyes, to the task of getting ready to go to Andreas. The river and the hills were but a short six hours from her farm, and on a horse she could have ridden it in less. But it was no wish of hers to bring any slur upon her husband, so she prepared to go to him in a cart, taking shirts and shoes and tobacco, like a dutiful wife visiting her husband on commando. And for a purpose she took no trouble to name to herself, she put in her pocket a little pug-nosed revolver which Andreas had once bought, played with for a while, and then forgotten.
"A Kafir came with her, to see to the horses and so on, for she was to travel in no other manner than that in which Burghers' wives travel every day; but once clear of the farm she took the reins and the whip to herself, and drove swiftly, pushing the team anxiously along the way. So well did she guide her path, that by evening they were slipping down the road towards the drift of the Tiger River, and when the light of day began to be mottled with night, they had crossed the drift and were passing up the right bank. When at length the darkness came, they were at the foot of the hills which the commando held.
"Here Anna alighted, and left the 'boy' to outspan and watch the cart. In a basket on her arm she had a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of medicine for rheumatism, that would make her coming seemly, and with the little revolver in her pocket knocking against her knee at every step, she faced the dark and the empty veld, and began the ascent of the hill alone. She was come to be a spur to her husband. This she knew clearly enough, yet as she went along, with the thin wind of the night on her forehead, she wasted no thoughts, but bent herself to the business of finding the laager and coming to Andreas. About her were the sombre hills, that are, in fact, mere bushy kopjes, but in the darkness, and to one alone, portentous and devious mountains. Veld-bred as she was, the business of path- finding was with her an instinct, like that of throwing up your hand to guard your eyes when sparks spout from the fire. Yet in an hour she lost herself utterly.
"She strove here and there, practicing all the tricks of the hunter to avoid moving in a circle, and so on. She wrenched her skirts through bushes that seemed to have hands. She plunged over stones that were noisy and ragged underfoot; she tumbled in ant-bear holes and bruised herself on ant-hills. And after a long time she sat down and listened—listened patiently for the alarm of firing to beckon a course to her. And there she waited, her basket on her knee, her arms folded across it, for all the world like a quiet woman in church, with no tremors, but only a mild and enduring expectancy.
"It came at last, a tempest of shooting that seemed all round her. Below her, and to her left, there were splashes of white flame. The fighter's daughter knew at once that these were from Kafir guns. Overhead, the rip-rip-rip of the Burghers' rifles pattered like rain on a roof, like hoofs on a road. And all was near at hand. Despite her endeavors, she had come nearly the whole way round the hill, and was now barely outside the cross-fire. She stood up, shaking her skirts into order, and took in the position. It was a bad one, but it pointed the way to Andreas, and, with a pat to her tumbled clothes she settled the bottles safely again in the basket and resumed her climbing.
"She thrust along through the bushes, while the clatter of the rifles grew nearer, and presently there was a flick— like a frog diving into mud—close by her feet, and she knew there were bullets coming her way. Flick-plop! It came again and again and again.
"'Some one sees me moving and is shooting at me,' said Anna to herself, and stopped to rest where a rock gave cover. The bullets, lobbing like pellets tossed from a window, came singing down towards her, clicking into the bushes, while below she could see the progress of the battle written in leaping dots of fire.
The Kafirs were spreading among the boulders—so much could be read from the growing breadth of the line of their fire, and Anna was quick to grasp the meaning of this movement. They were preparing to rush the hill, as of old the Basutos had done. The Kafirs with guns were being sent out to the flanks of the line to keep up a fire while the centre went forward with the assegais. It was an old manoeuvre; she had heard her brothers talk of it many times, and also—she remembered it now—of the counter-trick to meet it. There must be bush at hand, to set fire to, that the advance may be seen as soon as it forms and withered with musketry.
"Regardless of that deft rifleman among the Burghers who continued to drop his bullets about her, Anna took her basket again on her arm, came forth from her rock, and resumed the climb. She was obliged to make a good deal of noise, for it was too dark and uncomfortable to enable her to choose her steps well, Up above, the Burghers must have heard her plainly, though none but a keen eye would pick the blackness of her shape from the bosom of the night. The summit and the foot of the hill were alive with the spitting of the guns, and all the while the unknown sharpshooter searched about her for her life with clever plunging shots that flicked the dirt up. One bullet whisked through a piece of her skirt.
"'Now, I wonder if it can be Andreas who shoots so neatly,' said Anna, half-smiling to herself. 'He would be surprised if he knew what he is shooting at. Dear me, this is a very long and tiresome hill.'
"It was almost at that moment that she heard it—the beginning of the rush. There came up the hill, like a slow and solemn drum-music, the droning war-song of the Kafirs as they moved forward in face of the fire. It was an awful thing to hear, that bloody rhythm booming through the dome of the night. It is a song I have heard in the daytime, for a show, and it rings like heavy metal. Anna straightened herself and looked about her; there was nothing else for it but that she must start a fire, ere the battle-line swept up and on to the laager. It would draw more shooting upon her; but that gave her no pause. She had matches in her pocket, and fumbled about her and found a little thorn-bush that crackled while it tore her naked hands. Crouching by it, she dragged a bunch of the matches across the side of the box,—they spluttered and flamed, and she thrust them into the bush. It took light slowly, for there were yet the dregs of sap in it; but as it lighted, the deft rifleman squirted bullet after bullet all around her, aiming on the weakling flame she nursed with her bleeding hands.
"But for this she had no care at all. She had ceased to perceive it. Sheltering the place with her body, she drew out more matches, tore up grass, and built the little flame to a blaze that promised to hold and grow. As it cracked among the twigs, she wrenched the bush from the ground and ran forward with it upheld.
"'Burghers, Burghers!' she screamed. 'Pas op! The Kafirs are coming up the hill!'
"And whirling it widely she flung the burning bush from her with all her force, and watched its fire spread in the grass where it fell. Then she, too, fell down, and lay among the rocks and plants, scarcely breathing.
"Up above, the old commandant, peering under the pent of his hand, saw the torch waved and the figure that flung it.
"'Allemachtag!' he cried. 'It's the Vrouw van Wyck!'
"The next instant he was shouting, 'And here come the Kafirs! Shoot, Burghers, shoot straight and hard.'
"Where she lay, near the fire that now spread across the flank of the hill in broad bands among the dry grass and withered bushes, the Vrouw van Wyck heard that last cry and lifted her head as a torrent of shooting answered it. The Kafirs and the Burghers were at grips, and it seemed that all around her the night rustled with secret men that slunk about. There was great danger to her at last, for either in going forward or going back she might fall into the hands of the Kafirs, and—oh, you can never tell what that may mean! At the best and choicest it is death, but at the worst it is torment with loathly outrage, the torment and the degradation of Sheol. Anna knew that, knew it well and feared it. That daunted her, and as the thought grew clearer in her mind, dread gripped her, and she huddled among the stones with ears alert and a heart that clacked as it beat.
"Noises threatened her, and to them, the casual noises of the night, she gave ear anxiously, while above her the fight raged direfully and all unheard. At one time she truly saw naked Kafirs go up the hill,—the light of the fire glinted on the points of their assegais and threw a dull gleam on the muscle-rippled skin of them. Next, stones falling made her start, and ere this alarm was passed she heard the unmistakable clatter of shod feet among the boulders, and—plain and loud—an oath as some man stumbled. He was already to be seen, vaguely; then he was near at hand, coming upon her.
"'Now, what in God's name is this?' she cried, and rose. In her hand was the little blunt-nosed revolver.
"The man ran through a bush towards her, 'Anna,' he cried, 'Anna!'
"It was Andreas, and he took hold of her body and pressed her close to him.
"She thrilled with a superb exaltation of pride and joy, and put her arms about him.
"'What are you doing here?' he demanded.
"'I was coming to you,' she said, and with a little laugh, as of a girl, she showed him the basket, with the bottles yet in it. 'And you?' she asked, then.
"'Me?' he said. 'Why, I've come for you, of course. The Kafirs are at the ridge, and God knows what might happen to you. Was it you I was shooting at down there all the time?'
"'You shot very well,' she answered, and showed him the hole in her skirt where the bullet had pierced it. She heard him mutter another oath.
"'But we must be going,' he said; 'this is no place to be talking—no place at all. We must get round to the laager again. Let me have your arm, and tread quietly, and we must leave the basket.'
"'Not I,' she answered. 'I have brought it all this way, and I will not leave it now.'
"He answered with a short laugh, and they commenced to move upward. But by now the fire had hold of the thorn-trees all about, and their path was as light as day. It was too dangerous to attempt to climb to the ridge, and after walking for a while they were compelled to find the cover of a rock and remain still. Anna sat on the ground, very tired and content, and her husband peered out and watched what was to be seen.
"'We have beaten them,' he said. 'I can see a lot of them running back. Pray God none come this way. I wish I had not left my rifle.'
"'Yes,' said Anna, 'you left your rifle, and came unarmed to help me.'
"'It would have been awkward among the bushes,' he explained, and was suddenly silent, looking out over the top of the rock.
"'What is it?' asked Anna. He gave no answer, so she rose and went to his side and looked too, with her arms on his shoulder.
"The rip-rip of the Burghers' rifles sounded yet, but there was now another sound. The bushes creaked and the stones rocked with men returning down the hill. Not two hundred paces away they were to be seen—many scores of Kafirs dodging down-hill, taking what cover they could, pausing and checking at each rock and mound that gave shelter from the bullets.
"Anna felt her husband quiver as he saw the crowd swooping upon him.
"'Take this,' she said, and pressed the little revolver into his hand. 'It would be well not to be taken. But kiss me first.'
"He looked from the retreating and nearing Kafirs to her, with a face knotted in perplexity.
"'It is the only thing,' she urged, and drew his lips to hers.
"He looked down at the little weapon in his palm, and spoke as with an effort.
"'I was never a brave man, Anna,' he said, 'and I can't do this. Will you not do it?'
"She nodded and took the pistol. The Kafirs found nothing to work their hate upon."
HER OWN STORY
"But what are you going to live on?" asked the Vrouw Grobelaar. "You haven't got a farm."
"We're going to live in a town," answered Katje proudly.
I interrupted here, and tried to make the old lady understand that even schoolmasters received some money for their work, and that there would be enough for two, without frills.
She had no answer for the moment, but sat and looked at us both very thoughtfully. Still, there was no hostility in her aspect; she had not her warlike manner, and seemed engrossed rather with an estimate of the situation than of its consequences. I had looked for opposition and disparagement at least, volubly voiced and backed with a bloody example of a failure in marriage, and I know that Katje shared my misgivings. But here was something different.
"You—you are not angry?" asked Katje after a while.
The old lady started. "Angry! No, of course not. It is not altogether my affair, Katje. As time goes on, I grow nervous of stirring any broth but my own. If it were a matter of mere wisdom, and knowledge of life, and the cool head of an elder, I should not be afraid to handle you to suit my ideas; but this is a graver piece of business. Wisdom has nothing to do with it; those who are wise in their love are often foolish in their life. You've got your man, and if you want him you'll marry him in despite of the tongues of men and of angels. I know; I did it myself."
"You?" cried Katje.
"Yes, me," retorted the Vrouw Grobelaar. "Why not? Do you think that a person of sense has no feelings? When I was a girl I was nearly as big a fool as some others I could name, and got more out of it, in happiness and experience, than ever they will."
"Tell us about it," suggested Katje.
"I am telling you," snapped the old lady.
"Don't interrupt. Sit down. Don't fidget; nor giggle. There.
"When I was a girl," she began at last, "my father's farm was at Windhoek, and beyond the nek to the south, an easy two hours from our beacons, there lived one Kornel du Plessis. I came to know him, somehow. I saw him here and there, till I had no wish to see any but him, and we understood one another very well. Ah, Katje, girls are light things; but I truly think that in those days few Boer maids had much mind for trivial matters in their loves when once the man was found right and sound. Even at this length of time I have a thrill in remembering Kornel: a big man, and heavy, with thick shoulders, but very quick on his feet, and eyes that were gray, with pleasant little puckers at the corner. He sat far back in his saddle and lolled to the gait of the horse easily; such men make horse-masters, and masters of women. That is to say, they are masters of all.
"There was no kissing behind the kraal and whispering at windows. Neither of us had a mind for these meannesses. He came to my father's house and took food with us, and told my father the tale of his sheep and cattle, and the weight of the mortgage on his farm. Though he was not rich, he was young and keen, and my father knew well that the richest are not those who begin life with riches. There would have been no hindrance to a marriage forthwith, but for some law business in the town, of which I never understood the truth. But it concerned the land and house of Kornel, and my father would not say the last word till that should be settled.
"It dragged on for a long while, that law matter, and the conversations between Kornel and my father ran mainly in guesses about it, with much talk that was very forlorn of interest. But what did it matter to me? I had the man, and knew I could keep him; had I foreseen the future, even then I would not have cared. But for all that, I was very uneasy one hot day when Kornel rode over with a grave face and eyes that looked as though he had not slept the night before.
"My father gave him a sharp look, and pulled strongly at his pipe, like a man who prepares for ticklish business.
"'You have news?' he asked.
"'Kornel nodded, and looked at me. It was a look as though he would ask me to spare and forgive. I smiled at him, and came and stood at his side.
"'From what you have told me,' began my father, looking very wise, 'the water right may cut you off from the pastures. Is that so?'
"'No,' said Kornel; 'all that is wrong.'
"'H'm. Indeed! Then you will have to carry your north beacon farther to the east and lose the dam.'
"'Wrong again,' answered Kornel patiently.
"'Then you have won your case,' said my father, very eager to name the truth and prove his wisdom.
"'Dear me!' said Kornel;' you have no idea at all of the matter. You are quite out in your guesses. I have not won my case. I have lost it, and the land and the house and the stock along with it. I came over on a horse that is no more mine than this chair is. For all I know my very trousers may belong to the other man. There you have it. What do you say to that?'
"'Then you have nothing at all?' asked my father.
"'I have a piece of waste on the dorp road, near the spruit,' answered Kornel. 'There is a kind of hut on it. That is all. It is only two morgen' (four acres).
"My father sat shaking his head in silence for a long time, while Kornel clenched and unclenched his hands and stared at the floor and frowned. I put my hand on his shoulder, and he trembled.
"'It is an affliction,' said my father at last, 'and no doubt you know very well what you have done to deserve it. But it might be worse. You might have had a wife, and then what would you have done?'
"One is wise to honor one's parents always, but one cannot be blind. I think my father might sometimes have spoken less and done better for it.
"'We have talked about Christina yonder,' continued my father, pointing at me with the stem of his pipe. 'It is a good thing it went no further than talk.'
"'But it did,' I said quickly. 'It went much further. It went to my promise and Kornel's; and if I am ready to keep mine now, I shall not look to see him fail in his.'
"Ah! He never needed any but the smallest spur. Your true man kindles quickly. At my word he sprang up and his arm folded me. I gasped in the grip of it.
"'My promise holds,' he said, through clenched teeth.
"My father had a way of behaving like a landdrost (magistrate) at times, and now he wrinkled his forehead and smiled very wisely.
"'When one's bed is on the veld,' he said,' it is not the time to remember a promise to a girl. It is easier to find a bedfellow than a blanket sometimes. And then, I am to be considered, and I cannot suffer this kind of thing.'
"'I think you will have to manage it,' answered Kornel.
"'Do you?' said my father. 'Well, I have nothing to give you. Christina, come here to me!'
"Kornel loosed his arm and set me free, but I stayed where I was.
"'Father,' I cried, 'I have promised Kornel!'
"'Come here!' he said again. Then, when I did not move, disobeying him for the first time in my life, his face darkened. 'Are you not coming?' he said.
"'No,' I answered, and my man's arm took me again, tight— tight, Katje.
"'Well,' said my father, 'you had better be off, the two of you. Do not come here again.'
"'We can do that much to please you,' answered Kornel, with his head very high. 'Come, Christina!'
"And I followed him from my father's house. I had not even a hat for my head.
"We were married forthwith, of course—no later than the next day,—and the day after that I rode with my man to the plot beside the dorp spruit to see our home that had to be. That was a great day for me; and to be going in gentle companionship with Kornel across the staring veld and along the empty road was a most wonderful thing, and its flavor is still a relish to my memory. I knew that he feared what we were to see—the littleness and mean poverty of it, after the spaciousness of the farm; but most of all it galled him that I should see it on this our first triumphant day. He was very gentle and most loving, but shadows grew on his face, and there was a track of worry between his brows that spurred me. I knew what I had to do, now that our fortunes were knitted, and I did it.
"The plot was a slope from the edge of the dorp to the little spruit, not fenced nor sundered in any way from the squalid brick which houses the lower end of Dopfontein. Full in face of it was the location of the Kafirs; around it and close at hand were the gross and dirty huts of the off-colors (half-castes). The house, which was in the middle of the plot, was a bulging hovel of green brick, no more stately or respectable than any of the huts round about. As our horses picked their way through the muck underfoot, and we rode down to it, the off-colors swarmed out of their burrows and grinned and pointed at us.
"Kornel helped me from my saddle, and we went together to see the inside of the house. It was very foul and broken, with the plain traces of Kafirs in each of its two rooms, and a horrid litter everywhere. As I looked round I saw Kornel straighten himself quickly, and my eyes went to his.
"'This is our home,' he said bluntly, with a twitching of the cheek.
"'Perhaps,' he said in the same hard tone, as if he were awaiting an onslaught of reproach,—'perhaps I was wrong to bring you to this, but it is too late to tell me so now. It is not much—'
"I broke in and laughed. 'You will not know it when I have set it to rights,' I answered. 'It shall be a home indeed by the time I am through with it.'
"His cheek twitched yet, as though some string under the flesh were quivering with a strain.
"'It's you and me against all the evil luck in the world,' he cried, but his face was softening.
"I cowered within the arm he held out to me, and told him I was all impatience to begin the fight. And he cried on my shoulder, and I held him to me and soothed him from a spring of motherhood that broke loose in my heart.
"Within a week we were living in the place, and, Katje, I hope you will feel yet for some roof what I felt for that, with all its poorness. It was the first home of my wifehood: I loved it. I worked over it, as later I worked over the children God bestowed on me, purging it, remaking it, spending myself on it, and gilding it with the joy of the work. From the beams of the roof to the step of the door I cleansed it with my hands, marking it by its spotlessness for the habitation of white folk among the yellow people all around. Kornel did little to aid me in that—for the most part he was seeking work in the town; and even when he was at home I drove him sharply from the labor that was mine, and mine alone. The yellow people were very curious about it all, and would stand and watch me through the door till Kornel sjamboked them away; and even then some of their fat talkative women would come round with offers of help and friendship. But though we were fallen to poverty, we had not come so low as that; and few came to me a second time, and none a third.
"Still, though Kornel humbled himself and asked very little money, there was no work to be had in the dorp. No storekeeper had a use for him, and the transport agents had too many riders already. Day after day went by, and each day he came back more grim, with a duller light in those kind eyes of his and a slower twinkle.
"'You must trust in yourself,' I told him, as he sat by the table and would have it that he was not hungry.
"'I trust in you,' he answered, with a pitiable attempt at his old sparkle. 'You have proved yourself; I have not—yet, and I could do the work of three Kafirs, too.'
"The next day he came home at noon, with a swing in his gait and his fingers working.
"'I've got work,' he said, 'at last.'
"I stopped sewing and looked at him. 'Is it a white man's work?' I asked.
"'It is work,' he retorted.
"'Very well,' I said; 'but remember, we sink or soar together, and in neither case will I blame you. If you get white man's work, you shall have a white man's wife; but if you are going to do the work of Kafirs—'
"'Yes,' he said; 'and what then?'
"'In that case,' I answered, 'I shall do washing to eke it out and be a level mate for you.'
"'By God, you won't!' he cried, and his hand came down hard on the table. There was no mistaking his face: the command and the earnestness of it lighted up his eyes. I stared at him in a good deal of surprise, for though I had known it was there, this was the first I had seen of the steel strain in my man.
"'Call it Kafir work, or what you please,' he went on, with a briskness of speech that made answer impossible. 'You will keep this house and concern yourself with that only. The gaining of money is my affair. Leave it to me, therefore.'
"I cast down my eyes, knowing I must obey, but a little while after I asked him again what the work was to be.
"'Making bricks,' he answered. 'Here we have the spruit at our door and mud for the picking up. It needs only a box- mould or two, and it will be funny if I can't turn out as many good bricks in a day as three lazy Kafirs. Old Pagan, the contractor, has said he will buy them, so now it only remains to get to work.'
"As he said this, I noticed the uneasiness that kept him from meeting my eye, for in truth it was a sorry employ to put his strength to,—a dirty toil, all the dirtier for the fact that only Kafirs handled it in Dopfontein, and the pay was poor. From our door one could always see the brick- making going on along the spruit, with the mud-streaked niggers standing knee-deep in the water, packing the wet dirt into the boxes, and spilling them out to be baked in the sun or fired, as the case might be. There was too much grime and discomfort to it to be a respectable trade.
"But Kornel went to work at once, carrying down box-moulds from the contractor's yard, and stacking them in the stiff gray mud at the edge of the spruit, I went with him to see him start. He waded down over his boots, into the slow water, and plunged his arms elbow-deep into the mud.
"'Here's to an honest living,' he said, and lilted a great lump of slime into the first box and kneaded it close. Then, as he set it aside and reached for the next, he looked up to me with a smile that was all awry. My heart bled for him.
"'But there's no time to be polite,' he said, as the mud squelched into the second box. 'Here's the time to prove how a white man can work when he goes about it. So run back to the house, my kleintje, and leave me to make my fortune.'
"And forthwith he braced himself and went at that sorry work with all his fine strength. I had not the heart to stay by him; I knew that my eyes upon him were like offering him an insult, and yet I never looked at him save in love. But once or twice I glanced from the doorway, and saw him bowed still over that ruthless task, slaving doggedly, as good men do with good work.
"When the evening meal was due he came in, drenched from head to foot, and patched and lathered with the pale sticky mud; but though he was so tired that he drooped like a sick man where he stood, his face was bright again and his eyes were once more a-twinkle with hope and confidence.
"As he changed his clothes and washed himself, he talked cheerily to me through the wall, with a spirit like a boy's.
"'I've begun, at any rate,' he called out, 'and that's a great thing. If I go as far forward as I've gone back, I shall be satisfied. Where did you say the comb was?'
"And all through supper he chattered in the same vein, rejoicing in the muscles that ached with work and in his capacity to do more and bear more than the Kafirs who were his rivals.
For me, I was pleased enough and thankful to hear the heart of him thus vocal, and to mark the man I knew of old and chose to be my mate come to light in this laborer, new from his toil.
"We did not sit late that night, for, with all his elation and reawakened spirits. Kornel was weary to the honest bone of him, and swayed with sleep as he stood on his feet. He rolled into my clean, cool sheets with a grunt of utter satisfaction. 'This is comfort indeed,' he said drowsily, as I leaned over him, and he was asleep before I had answered.
"At daylight he rose and went forth to the spruit again, and there all day he labored earnestly. Each time that I looked towards him I saw his back bent and his arms plunging in the mud, while the rows of wet bricks grew longer and multiplied. I heard him whistling at it,—some English melody he had gathered long before at a waapenschauw,—with a light heart, the while he was up to his knees in the dirty water, with the mud plastered all over him.
"By and by I went down to the bank and asked him how he did. He straightened himself, grimacing humorously at the stiffness of his back, and answered me cheerily.
"'Tomorrow old Pagan will come down and pay for what I have done,' he said. I think he will be surprised at the amount. His Kafirs have no such appetite for it as I.' And he laughed.
"It was a dreadful business he had taken in hand, and work hard beyond believing. The boxes stood in a pile above the stream, and each had to be reached down as one was filled, and as soon as two were full Kornel must climb the bank to set them aside. When all were full, they had to be turned out on the level ground, and all this, as you can see, meant that he must scramble up and down in the heavy mud, taxing every spring in his poor body. Yet he toiled ceaselessly, attacking the job with a kind of light-hearted desperation that made nothing of its hardships, bringing to it a tough and unconquerable joy in the mere effort, which drove him ever like a spur.
"As I watched him delving, I thought that here a woman could render some measure of help, and as he turned from talking to me I began to empty out the boxes that were ready and stack them again on the pile. I had not yet turned out ten bricks when he saw me, and paused in his melancholy work.
"'Stop that!' he cried, and scrambled out of the spruit to where I stood. 'I suppose,' he went on, 'you would like your father to know that I had suffered you to work for me like a Kafir.'
"'Kornel!' I cried in horror.
"But he was white on the cheek-bones and breathing hard, and I could not soften him.
"'Rich man's daughter or poor man's wife,' he said, 'you are white, and must keep your station. It is my business to sell myself, not yours. Get you back to the house I have given you, and stay there.'
"And with that he picked up the soft bricks I had turned for him, and threw them one by one into the spruit.
"'Poverty and meanness and all,' he added, 'it shall not be said at your father's house that you worked for me. Nor that you lacked aught it became you to have, neither,' he added, with a quick heat of temper. 'Get to your house.'
"I slunk off, crying like a child, while he went back to the mud—and the labor.
"Next day came Pagan to pay for the work that was done. He drove up in his smart cart, and tiptoed his way daintily to the edge of the spruit where the bricks lay. He was an old man, very cleanly dressed, with hard white hair on his head and face, and a quick manner of looking from side to side like a little bird. In all his aspect there was nothing but spoke of easy wealth and the serenity of a well-ordered life; there was even that unkindly sharpness of tone and manner that is a dead-weight on the well-to-do. My husband was at work when he drove up, but he straightened his back, squared his broad shoulders, and came up from the mud, walking at the full of his height and smiling down at the rich man with half-closed eyes.
"'Daag, Heer Pagan,' he said to him, in the tone of one who needs and desires nothing, and held out his hand—mud from the elbow—with something lordly in the gesture. The rich man cocked his head quickly, in the way he had, and hung in the breeching for a moment, ere he rendered his hand to Kornel, with a reddening of the cheek above his white whisker that betrayed him, I thought, for a paltry soul.
"'I've come to see your bricks,' he said curtly, 'and to pay for 'em, if they're all right.'
"'Ah, the bricks,' said Kornel airily. 'Yes, to be sure. There they are. Go and count them, if you like, and then you can come to me at my house where the Vrouw du Plessis (which was me) will give us some coffee.'
"I was watching, you may be sure, and again I saw the wintry red swell above the white whisker, and I clenched my hands in wrath and contempt at the creature's littleness. I was sure he would have liked to sweep my man's courtesy aside, and certainly the politeness had a prick in it. He was rich, and old, and fat, with a consequence in his mien and an air that hinted he was used to deference, and Kornel was but a muddy brick-moulder. Yet there stood my man, so easy in his quiet speech, so sure of himself, so dangerous a target for contempt, that the rich man only stammered. Kornel nodded as though he understood the invitation to be accepted, and walked up to the house, leaving old Pagan to count the bricks and follow.
"I kissed him as he came in. 'You've trampled his dirty soul under your heel,' I said, 'and I love you for it. I love to see you upright and a man of purpose; whatever comes of it, I shall honor you always.'
"He kissed me and laughed. 'Nothing will happen, if we are lucky,' he said. 'There is more in John Pagan than the big stomach and the money. But we mustn't crawl to him; I'll wager he never crawled himself when he was poor.'
"I set the coffee ready, spreading the table with a fine cloth I had brought from Kornel's farm, one of the few things we had taken with us, and presently in came old Pagan. Directly I saw him I felt a doubt of him; there was a kind of surreptitious viciousness showing in his sour smile that warned me. He was like a man who is brewing an unpleasant joke.
"'Ah, Mrs. du Plessis,' he said, 'your man will have been working very hard.'
"'You know what brick-moulding is, then?' I said.
"He grinned. 'A little,' he said; 'yes, a little. There's few jobs I haven't put a hand to in my time. Work's a fine thing, when a man knows how to work.'
"'You are very right,' agreed Kornel.
"'This is good coffee,' said John Pagan, as he stirred his cup. 'In fact, it's better than the bricks.'
"'A better hand was at work on it,' said Kornel.
"'So I should judge,' answered Pagan sleekly. 'I should like another cup of this coffee, if I may trouble you, Mrs. du Plessis.'
"He laid his cup on the table and bit his nails while I filled it, glancing round at my poor room the while and smiling to himself.
"'Yes,' he said, 'I like the coffee, but I don't like the bricks. They're no good at all.'
"We both stared at him, silent and aghast, and the white- haired old man chuckled in our stricken faces.
"'What is wrong with them?' demanded Kornel at last. His face was white, but he spoke quite naturally.
"'Aha!' laughed old Pagan. 'Ye see, there's no trade, that ye can take up without a bit o' learning, not even makin' mud-bricks. The very same thing happened to me. Lord, it's past forty years ago, I turned out six hundred dozen, and had 'em thrown on my hands. It nearly broke my heart.'
"'I can understand that,' said Kornel. 'But what is wrong with my bricks?'
"Old Pagan set his cup back on the table and sat up in his chair. As he began to speak he hitched back the sleeves of his coat and moved his neck in his white collar.
"'See here!' he said. 'It's a little thing, like turning up the toe of a horseshoe, but just as essential. When ye set your full moulds out to dry, did ye set 'em on edge, to drain away the water? Ye did not? Well, that's what's wrong. They're just mud-pies-lumps o' damp dirt, that'll crumble as soon as they're dry. There's ninety dozen of 'em, by my count, and there'll not be three dozen that ye could use in any way consistent wi' conscience. Do ye take my meanin'?'
"Kornel nodded very thoughtfully.
"'Well, you'll just need to get to work again,' said the old man. 'Maybe I'm not exactly keen on greetings and invitations and the like, but you'll not be able to teach me anything on bricks. So if ye're thinking anything about the splendor o' your work, wait dll ye're master of it before you waste more thought. I'm your better as a craftsman,' he said, with a glance towards me.
"I was red all over, what with shame and sorrow, but I marked that the paltriness seemed to have gone from John Pagan as soon as he began to talk of work. He turned then to Kornel with a briskness that was not unkindly.
"'I was relying on you for bricks,' he said, 'for you can work, and that's a fact. Perhaps you can let me have a hundred dozen by Thursday, eh? I'm waitin' on them. And if you make sure of it, I'll do wi' ye what's my common custom, and that's pay half the price in advance. How's that suit?'
"Kornel rose from his chair and stammered thanks, and John Pagan paid the money on to the table.
"'I'll be down on Thursday to see the bricks,' he said, 'and don't forget the dodge I told ye. And maybe Mrs. du Plessis 'll be willing to give me coffee again when I come. So good-day to ye, and mind—drain 'em!'
"When he was gone Kornel and I looked at each other and laughed emptily. Then he went out to the mud again to make ready for Thursday.
"So it was we lived for a time that was shorter than it seemed, building on the mud of our shaky fortunes a pride that our poverty could not overturn. Kornel had a saying that seemed irreligious but very true. 'There are ministers and farmers and lawyers who are rich,' he would observe, 'but there's no money in work,' I have since been won to believe that there is a flaw in the argument, but for us it was true, and bitterly true. We were never on the right side of ten shillings; we were never out of sight of the thin brink of want. That we were preserved and kept clear of disaster was due only to the toil of Kornel and my own anxious care for the spending of the money. I found out that a wife who is strong has a great trade to drive in upholding her house; and I, at any rate, was proficient in maintaining cleanliness, in buying and making food, and preserving to my home the atmosphere of happiness and welcome that anchors a man to his own place. Take it all in all, we were happy, and yet I would not pretend that there were not grim hours when we wondered if the mere living were worth all that it cost. Kornel, hard as iron always, grew lean and stooped, and there appeared in his face a kind of wild care that frightened me. From the chill upcoming of the dawn to the rising of the wind at evening he taxed himself remorselessly at the sorry work in the mud, while I scrubbed and scraped and plotted and prayed to make the meagre pay cover wants that were pared meagre enough. Yes, there were certainly times when we thought the cost too great, but, God be praised, we never thought it at the same moment, and the stronger always upheld the weaker.
"And there was never any shame in the matter. Even as we feared nothing, we were never ashamed. Never!
"One morning—, about an hour before high sun, when the dust lay thick on the road into the town that passed our land, and the neighborhood around was feverish with the fuss of the Kafirs and yellow folk, I stood for a moment at my door, looking down to where Kornel was fervently at work in the spruit. There was always traffic on the road at that hour, and something drew me to look towards it. At once I saw my father. He was riding in, dressed in his black clothes, very solemn and respectable, with his beard flowing over his chest. At the same moment he saw me, and seemed to start in his saddle and glance quickly at all about—at my poor little house, the litter that lay about, the squalor of the town-end we lived in, and the laborious bent back of my man as he squattered about in the mud. He checked his horse an instant, as though by an impulse; for my father, though I honored him, was a weak man, in whom no purpose was steadfast. I saw the wavering in his face and the uncertainty of his big pale eyes; and then, half- nodding to me as though in an embarrassment, he pushed on and entered the town. I went down and told Kornel.
"'H'm!' He stood as though in thought, looking up to me from the water. 'Your father, eh? Would you like him to come and see you?'
"He laughed and climbed up the bank to me. 'So would I,' he said. 'I have a stiffness in my back that makes me inclined for anything rather than this work. Even your father.'
"We walked up to the house together, and Kornel's brow was creased with thought, while his lips smiled.
"'You see,' he said, 'we want nothing from him—nothing at all, so we can't afford to be humble. Have we any money at all?'
"'We have three shillings,' I answered, 'and I owe one shilling for food.'
"'That's not enough,' he said, shaking his head. 'You say he saw me working? We must have thirty shillings at least; we must treat him well; I can't let him off now that he has seen so much. We'll stuff him till he bulges like a rotten cask, and wishes he could make bricks as I can. I wonder if Pagan would pay me in advance for a thousand dozen. I'll go and ask him.'
"He started for the door at once, but turned and came back to me.
"'He said once he had nothing to give me,' he whispered to me. Do you grudge me this, kleintje.'
"'Not I,' I answered. 'I only wish we could do more.'
"He kissed me and was off in a moment. Pagan made no difficulty about the money. He looked at Kornel shrewdly when my man made the request, and paid at once.
"'It suits me ye should be a wee thing in my debt,' he said. 'But you're so damned proud, there's times I'm scared o' ye. Sign yer name here.'
"'Now,' said Kornel, when he had put the money in my hand, 'get what you need for a dinner that will tickle the ou pa's stomach, and a bottle of whiskey. There never was a deacon that did not suffer from some complaint that whiskey would ease; and I'll get into what clean clothes I have and go to look for him.'
"So I bought the dinner. I was willing enough to suffer the emptiness to come, if only I could wipe from my father's memory his impression of my man's poverty; but all the same, in case he should refuse to visit us, I bought things that would last long enough to serve ourselves until the thirty shillings should have been earned. They made a good show: for I have never been a fool in the matter of food, and I knew my father's tastes. I promised myself that his dinner should be his chief memory of that day, at all events. He was, I fear, the kind of man who remembers his good dinners better than anything else.
"It was a long time before they came, and I had given up all hope of the visit when I heard their voices. Or rather, it was Kornel's voice that I heard, in a tone of careless civility, like one who performs a casual duty of politeness. He was talking nonsense in a slow drawl, and as they picked their way from the road to the house my father looked up to him in a kind of wonder.
"'The evenings are pleasant here,' Kornel was saying. 'We have a little time to ourselves then, for people have learned at last not to trouble us much. One sees the sun go down yonder across the hills, and it is very pretty, Now, on the farm, nobody ever knew how handsome the sunset is. We were like Kafirs on the farm; but life in the town is quite different.'
"He chattered on in the same strain, and my father was plainly dazed by it, so that his judgment was all fogged, and he took the words at their face value. I noticed that my father seemed a little abashed and doubtful; it was easy to see that this was the opposite of what he had expected.
"He greeted me with a touch of hesitation in his manner; but I kissed him on the forehead and tried to appear a fortunate daughter—smiling assuredly, you know, glad to exercise hospitality and to receive my father in my own house. It was not all seeming, either; for I had no shame in my condition and my husband's fortune,—only a resentment for those who affected to expect it.
"'You are looking well,' said my father, staring at me. 'How do you like the life you are living?'
"Kornel smiled boldly across to me, and I laughed.
"'I was never so happy in my life,' I answered—and that, at any rate, was true.
"My father grunted, and sat listening to the gentle flow of talk with which Kornel gagged him the while I busied myself with the last turn of the cooking and set the table to rights. But he glanced at me from time to time with something of surprise and disapproval; perhaps a white woman with no Kafir servant had never met his eyes before. Kornel did not miss the expression of his face.
"'We will show you something new in the dinner line,' he remarked knowingly. 'There are things you can't teach to a Kafir, you know.'
"'What things?' demanded my father.
"'Ah, you shall see in a moment,' answered Kornel, nodding mysteriously. 'Christina will show you. Have you ever heard of a ragout?'
"My father shook his head. Neither had I; but I held my tongue.
"'Well,' said Kornel, 'a ragout is a fowl cooked as Christina has cooked it. It is a very favorite dish among the rich men in Johannesburg. If you will draw up your chair to the table you shall see.'
"It is true that I had a good hand with a fowl, stewed in a fashion of my own, which was mainly the outcome of ignorance and emergency; but it was very fortunate that on that day of all days the contrivance should have turned out so well. It was tender, and the flesh was seasoned to just the right flavor by the stuff I stewed with it—certain herbs, Katje, and a hint of a whiff of garlic. Garlic is a thing you must not play with: like sin, you can never undo it, whatever forgiveness you win. But a leaf or two bruised between two clean pebbles, and the pebbles boiled with the stew, spices the whole thing as a touch of devil spices a man.
"You maybe sure I was anxious about it, and watched Kornel and my pa as they started to eat. Kornel swallowed his first mouthful with an appearance of keen judgment; then he winked swiftly to me, and nodded slightly. It was his praise of the dish. Oh, if you had known my man, you would not need telling that that was enough for me. My father commenced to eat as though curious of the food before him. He gave no sign of liking or otherwise; but presently he squared his shoulders, drew his chair closer to the table, and gave his mind to the matter.
"'That's right, walk into it,' said Kornel. "'It is very good indeed,' said my father, eating thoughtfully, and presently I helped him to some more. Kornel gave him soda- water with whiskey in it, and thereafter there were other things to eat—nearly thirty shillings' worth. After that they sat and smoked, and drank the strong coffee I made for them, and passed the whiskey bottle to and fro between them. All the while Kornel babbled amiably of foolish things, sunsets, and Shakespeare and the ways of women, till I caught myself wondering whether indeed he relished the change from the wide clean veld of the farm to this squalid habitation of toil.
"'I suppose,' said my father at last, when Kornel had finished talking about sunsets,—'I suppose a ragoo, as you call it, is very expensive to make?'
"'I really couldn't say,' answered Kornel. 'But I should think not.'
"'H'm; and you think a Kafir could not be taught to make them?'
"Kornel laughed. 'I should be sorry to try,' he said.
"My father pondered on that for a while, smoking strongly and glancing from time to time at me.
"'I'm growing an old man,' he said at last, 'and old men are lonely at the best.'
"'Some seem to wish it,' said Kornel.
"'I say they are lonely,' repeated my father sharply. 'I have no wife, and I cannot be bothered with getting another at my time of life.' He shook his gray head sadly. 'Not that I should have to look far for one,' he added, however.
"Kornel laughed, and my father looked at him angrily.
"'If it had not been for you,' he said, 'I should still have had my daughter Christina to live with me. I am tired of being alone, and I cannot nurse the wrong done me by my own flesh and blood. You and Christina had better come out to the farm and live with me.'
"'And leave my business?' asked Kornel.
"'Oh, there is mud and water on the farm, if your business pleases you,' retorted my father. 'But out there we do not take the bread out of the mouths of Kafirs.'
"'I see,' answered Kornel briefly; and I, who watched him, knew from his voice that there was to be no truce after that, that we should still earn our livelihood by the mud bricks.
"'You will come?' asked my father.
"'Good Lord, no!' replied Kornel. 'You would weary me to death in a week, I don't mind being civil when we meet, but live with you! It would be to make oneself a vegetable.'
"My father heard him out with a grave face, and then rose to his feet. There was a stateliness in his manner that grieved me, for when a man meets a rebuff with silence and dignity he is aging.
"'You are right, perhaps,' he said. 'I don't know, but you may be. Anyhow, I have enjoyed an excellent meal, and I thank you. Good-bye, Christina!'
"When he was gone, Kornel turned to me.
"'It is evident you cannot have both a husband and a father,' he said; 'but I am sorry for the rudeness, kleintje. He is a greater man than I.'
"'I think you might have made it otherwise,' I answered, for my heart ached for my father.
"He shrugged his shoulders. 'You must manage to forgive me,' he said. 'I have a thousand dozen bricks to make, and that will be punishment enough.'
"'But you will not start again tonight!' I cried, for it was already the thin end of evening, and he was taking off his clean clothes.
"'A thousand dozen is a big handful,' he answered, smiling. 'There's nothing like getting a grip on the work ahead.'
"So in a few minutes he was down in the water again, and the mud flew as he worked at the heart-breaking task he had taken upon him. After all, the ragout was expensive to make. It came dearer than we expected.
"Late into the night he held on, though thrice I went out to the bank of the stream to beg him to quit it and come to bed. There was a great pale moon that night, which threw up the colors of things strongly, and I have yet in my mind— and my heart—that picture,—the stained water, and the bank of gray mud over it, and between the two my Kornel bent over the endless boxes, vehemently working with no consideration for the limits of his strength. His arms gleamed with the wet, and were ceaseless; he might have been a dumb machine, without capacity for weariness. If he had toiled before, now he toiled doubly; there was a trouble in his mind to be sweated out and a debt of money to be repaid. And also, like a peril always near at hand, there was the thin margin that stood between us and starvation.
"When he came to bed at length, he lay down without the greeting he was wont to give me—lapsed into his place beside me with the limpness of a man spent to the utmost ounce. He slept without turning on his side, his worn hands, half-closed, lying loosely on the quilt. Yet within an hour after daylight he rose with narrow, sleep-burdened eyes, fumbled into his clothes, and staggered out to the spruit again, to resume his merciless work with the very fever of energy. The Kafirs that worked leisurely on the next plot stopped to look at him and to wonder at the speed with which the rows of drying bricks lengthened and multiplied. I saw them pointing as I stood at the door, heavy-hearted and anxious, and envied the ease of their manner of life, and the simplicity that could be content with such work at such a wage. Yes, I have envied Kafirs, Katje; there are times for all women when we envy the dead.
"But it was the day after that that the trouble came upon us, great and violent and unawaited. Kornel had been up at daybreak again, working as strongly as ever, though his mouth was loose with the strain and his face very yellow and white. The drying and the dry bricks were lying on the ground in long rows, and some which were hard were already stacked to make room for others. It was a tremendous output for one man in the time it had taken; and when the Kafirs turned out, gabbling and laughing as usual, they stopped to look in surprise at our plot and the great quantity of bricks. They gathered in a group, and talked among themselves and pointed, and presently I was aware there was something toward. One of them in particular,—a great brown brute, with bulky shoulders and huge arms, seemed to be concerned in the affair; he stared continually towards Kornel, and talked loudly, his voice running up into the squeak of a Kafir when he is excited, or angry, or afraid; and presently he stepped over our border line and walked down to the bricks. He was jabbering to himself all the time as he stooped and picked up bricks and examined them closely, and glanced down to the spruit where Kornel was still working.
"I watched him, but I said nothing, hoping he would go away before Kornel saw him; but he kept on, and presently my man looked up.
"He saw the Kafir at once, and climbed up the bank pretty quickly. There was something like a smile on his face, a look as though he had found the relief he needed. He walked swiftly over to the Kafir.
"'What are you doing here?' he demanded, keeping his eyes unwinkingly on the staring eyes of the Kafir.
"The latter held a dried brick in his great paw, and now he thrust it forward and broke into a torrent of speech. He accused Kornel of having trespassed in the night and stolen the bricks of the Kafirs. No man, he said, could have made so many by himself, and then he began to call names. I shuddered and put my hands before my face, and took them down again in time to see Kornel's fist fly up and out, and the great Kafir reel back from a vicious blow in the face.
"But he gave way for a moment only. Next instant he recovered and his huge arm rose, and I screamed and ran forward as the brick, dry and hard as a stone, struck Kornel on the head and tumbled him, loosely like a dead man, among the rows of bricks about him. I did not see the Kafir run away; I saw only the thin white face of my man turned up to the sun, and the blood that ran from his brown hair. I lifted his head and called to him; but his head lolled on his shoulders, and I let him lie while I ran out crying to find help.
"It was some of the yellow folk who carried him in for me, and brought the German doctor.
"Kornel was on the bed when he came, and he caused the cut to be bandaged, and then spoke abstrusely of the effect of the blow, so that I understood nothing at all. I learned, however, how I was to tend him, how feed him, and how he would lie unconscious for long intervals when there would be nothing at all to do for him. But he told me I had nothing to fear in the end. Indeed, he had a kind of cheeriness which seems to belong to doctors, which did much to comfort me and steady me for what was to come. Kornel would not die, he said; and it was that assurance I chiefly needed.
"The day went slowly for me, I can tell you. There was yet food enough in the house to last us a little while, and I made a mess for Kornel, and ate what I wanted myself. He recovered his sense of things once or twice, but when night came he dropped off again into a stupor from which he was not to be roused, and it was then I left him. I felt as though I were a traitor to him in his weakness; but my mind had buzzed hopelessly all day about the problem of our mere living, and I saw nothing else for it, so down I went to the spruit to earn what I might for my sick husband.
"The moon gave me light, and I had watched Kornel often enough to know how to go about the work. But the water, as it flowed about my legs, bit me with a chill that made me gasp, and the effort of the work, the constant bending and lifting, tried every muscle in my body. I had seen the cruelty of the work in its traces on Kornel, and knew how little it gave and how much it took; but with this first trial of it came the realization, never lost since, of how gallant a man I had chosen to stand between me and the world, and how much I owed him. I had not time to think a great deal, for the torture of brick-making is partly in the tact that while it wrenches the body, it joins the mind to its infinite triviality. If you think, you do not pack the mud as it must be packed, and the sun crumbles your bricks to dust. It is no task for a real man at all; even for a woman, it debases, it unmakes, it breaks.
"I worked hard at it, husbanding my strength, and within an hour I was weak and foolish with the effort. Twice I had left it to go in and see if all was well with Kornel, and this rested me; but I was now resolved that I must rest no more, if ever our debt was to be paid and bread earned for the grim days to come. So I stayed in the bitter water and worked on, till even the sense of pain was dulled and it seemed that I was past the capacity of feeling.
"I was toiling thus (never mind my old troubles, Katje, dear; this is years ago) when a sound came to my ears that caused me to look up. It had been going on for some time, persisting till it gained my notice, and suddenly I became aware that there were men on our ground among the bricks. I climbed half-way up the bank to look at them, where they could not see me; and I saw several dark figures bent to some business or moving here and there. I caught the sound of hushed voices, too, though no words; and then the hot wrath set my blood racing as I realized what was going on. The Kafirs, who knew my man was wounded and helpless—the very beast who had felled him—were stealing the bricks he had labored so stoutly to make. My head swam with a delirium of vivid anger at the meanness of the crime, and without calculation, with no thought of fear, I scrambled up and ran at them, shouting.
"I suppose they were surprised at my coming out of the spruit, and some of them ran as soon as they heard me. Others stood and waited ominously—you know what a Kafir is with a woman,—and doubtless I should have met my last earthly troubles then and there, but that from the road beyond us there were other shouts, and men came running.
"I saw the forms of the rescuers as they raced up, and marked one tall young man who ran past me with his arm lifted before him. There was a flash and a bang, and I sat down heavily as the white men shot at the Kafirs who were now all running to cover. It took but an instant, and I remember it as one remembers a thing seen at night by a lightning flash, sharp and feverish.
"'Ye've no need to be feared,' someone said to me. 'They're only my clerks, but they're a handy lot.'
"A short stout man was standing over me, and as I looked up I saw it was old Pagan. Away in the darkness there were yet cries and the sound of blows, where the white men pursued the Kafirs.
"'Ye see,' continued the old man, 'I heard o' what had happened, an' I counted on this. I'm a man o' experience, Mrs. du Plessis, an' the very same thing happened to me once. So I got a few o' my lads along, and we've been waitin' for what ye might call the eventuality. I'm no' exactly a negrophilist, ye ken. An' after seem' you squatterin' about in the mud yonder, while yer husband was sick a-bed, there was no holdin' the lads. No' that I endeavored to restrain them, in any precise sense.'