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The Story of an African Farm, vol. 1. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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page: 40
page: 41

CHAPTER III.

I WAS A STRANGER, AND YE TOOK ME IN.

AS the two girls rounded the side of the “kopje,” an unusual scene presented itself. A large group was gathered at the back door of the homestead.

On the door-step stood the Boer-woman, a hand on each hip, her face red and fiery, her head nodding fiercely. At her feet sat the yellow Hottentot maid, her satellite, and around stood the black Kaffir maids, with blankets twisted round their half-naked figures. Two, who stamped mealies in a wooden block, held the great stampers in their hands, and stared stupidly at the object of attraction. It certainly was not to look at the old German overseer, page: 42 who stood in the centre of the group, that they had all gathered together. His salt-and-pepper suit, grizzly black beard, and grey eyes were as familiar to every one on the farm as the red gables of the homestead itself; but beside him stood the stranger, and on him all eyes were fixed. Ever and anon the new-comer cast a glance over his pendulous red nose to the spot where the Boer-woman stood, and smiled faintly.

“I'm not a child,” cried the Boer-woman, in low Cape Dutch, “and I wasn't born yesterday. No, by the Lord, no! You can't take me in! My mother didn't wean me on Monday. One wink of my eye, and I see the whole thing. I'll have no tramps sleeping on my farm,” cried Tant' Sannie blowing. “No, by the Devil, no! not though he had sixty-times-six red noses.”

There the German overseer mildly interposed that the man was not a tramp, but a highly page: 43 respectable individual, whose horse had died by an accident three days before.

“Don't tell me,” cried the Boer-woman; “the man isn't born that can take me in. If he'd had money wouldn't he have bought a horse? Men who walk are thieves, liars, murderers, Rome's priests, seducers! I see the Devil in his nose!” cried Tant' Sannie shaking her fist at him; “and to come walking into the house of this Boer's child, and shaking hands as though he came on horseback! Oh, no, no!”

The stranger took off his hat, a tall, battered chimney-pot, and disclosed a bald head, at the back of which was a little fringe of curled white hair; and he bowed to Tant' Sannie.

“What does she remark, my friend?” he inquired, turning his cross-wise looking eyes on the old German.

The German rubbed his old hands and hesitated.

“Ah—well—ah—the—Dutch—you know— page: 44 do not like people who walk—in this country—ah!”

“My dear friend,” said the stranger, laying his hand on the German's arm, “I should have bought myself another horse, but crossing, five days ago, a full river, I lost my purse—a purse with five hundred pounds in it. I spent five days on the bank of the river trying to find it—couldn't. Paid a Kaffir nine pounds to go in and look for it at the risk of his life—couldn't find it.”

The German would have translated this information, but the Boer-woman gave no ear.

“No, no; he goes to-night. See how he looks at me—a poor unprotected female! If he wrongs me, who is to do me right?” cried Tant' Sannie.

“I think,” said the German in an undertone, “if you didn't look at her quite so much it might be advisable. She—ah—she—might—imagine that you liked her too well,—in fact—ah—”

page: 45

“Certainly, my dear friend, certainly,” said the stranger. “I shall not look at her.”

Saying this, he turned his nose full upon a small Kaffir of two years old. That small naked Kaffir became instantly so terrified that he fled to his mother's blanket for protection, howling horribly.

Upon this the new-comer fixed his eyes pensively on the stamp-block, folding his hands on the head of his cane. His boots were broken, but he still had the cane of a gentleman.

“Yo vaggabonds se Engelschman!” said Tant' Sannie, looking straight at him.

This was a near approach to plain English; but the man contemplated the block abstractedly, wholly unconscious that any antagonism was being displayed toward him.

“You might not be a Scotchman, or anything of that kind, might you?” suggested the German. “It is the English that she hates.”

“My dear friend,” said the stranger, “I am page: 46 Irish every inch of me—father Irish, mother Irish. I've not a drop of English blood in my veins.”

“And you might not be married, might you?” persisted the German. “If you had a wife and children, now? Dutch people do not like those who are not married.”

“Ah,” said the stranger, looking tenderly at the block, “I have a dear wife and three sweet little children—two lovely girls and a noble boy.”

This information having been conveyed to the Boer-woman, she, after some further conversation, appeared slightly mollified; but remained firm to her conviction that the man's designs were evil.

“For, dear Lord!” she cried; “all Englishmen are ugly; but was there ever such a red-rag-nosed thing with broken boots and crooked eyes before. Take him to your room,” she cried to the German; “but all the sin he does I lay at your door.”

page: 47

The German having told him how matters were arranged, the stranger made a profound bow to Tant' Sannie and followed his host, who led the way to his own little room.

“I thought she would come to her better self soon,” the German said joyously. “Tant' Sannie is not wholly bad, far from it, far.” Then seeing his companion cast a furtive glance at him, which he mistook for one of surprise, he added quickly, “Ah, yes, yes; we are all a primitive people here—not very lofty. We deal not in titles. Every one is Tanta and Oom—aunt and uncle. This may be my room,” he said, opening the door. “It is rough, the room is rough; not a palace—not quite. But it may be better than the fields, a little better,” he said, glancing round at his companion. “Come in, come in. There is something to eat—a mouthful: not the fare of emperors and kings; but we do not starve, not yet,” he said, rubbing his hands together and looking page: 48 round with a pleased, half-nervous smile on his old face.

“My friend, my dear friend,” said the stranger, seizing him by the hand, “may the Lord bless you, the Lord bless and reward you—the God of the fatherless and the stranger. But for you I would this night have slept in the fields, with the dews of heaven upon my head.”

Late that evening Lyndall came down to the cabin with the German's rations. Through the tiny square window the light streamed forth, and without knocking she raised the latch and entered. There was a fire burning on the hearth, and it cast its ruddy glow over the little dingy room, with its worm-eaten rafters and mud floor, and broken white-washed walls. A curious little place, filled with all manner of articles. Next to the fire was a great tool-box; beyond that the little bookshelf with its well-worn books; beyond that, in the corner, a heap page: 49 of filled and empty grain-bags. From the rafters hung down straps, “reims,” old boots, bits of harness, and a string of onions. The bed was in another corner, covered by a patchwork quilt of faded red lions, and divided from the rest of the room by a blue curtain, now drawn back. On the mantelshelf was an endless assortment of little bags and stones; and on the wall hung a map of South Germany, with a red line drawn through it to show where the German had wandered. This place was the one home the girls had known for many a year. The house where Tant' Sannie lived and ruled was a place to sleep in, to eat in, not to be happy in. It was in vain she told them they were grown too old to go there; every morning and evening found them there. Were there not too many golden memories hanging about the old place for them to leave it?

Long winter nights, when they had sat round the fire and roasted potatoes, and asked riddles, page: 50 and the old man had told of the little German village, where, fifty years before, a little German boy had played at snowballs, and had carried home the knitted stockings of a little girl who afterward became Waldo's mother; did they not seem to see the German peasant girls walking about with their wooden shoes and yellow, braided hair, and the little children eating their suppers out of little wooden bowls when the good mothers called them in to have their milk and potatoes?

And were there not yet better times than these? Moonlight nights, when they romped about the door, with the old man, yet more a child than any of them, and laughed, till the old roof of the waggon-house rang.

Or, best of all, were there not warm, dark, starlight nights, when they sat together on the door-step, holding each other's hands, singing German hymns, their voices rising clear in the still night air—till the German would draw page: 51 away his hand suddenly to wipe quickly a tear the children must not see? Would they not sit looking up at the stars and talking of them—of the dear Southern Cross, red, fiery Mars, Orion, with his belt, and the Seven Mysterious Sisters—and fall to speculating over them? How old were they? Who dwelt in them? And the old German would say that perhaps the souls we loved lived in them; there, in that little twinkling point was perhaps the little girl whose stockings he had carried home; and the children would look up at it lovingly, and call it “Old Otto's star.” Then they would fall to deeper speculations—of the times and seasons wherein the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll, and the stars shall fall as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs, and there shall be time no longer; “when the Son of man shall come in His glory, and all His holy angels with Him.” In lower and lower tones they would talk, till at last they fell into whispers; then they would page: 52 wish good night softly, and walk home hushed and quiet.

To-night, when Lyndall looked in, Waldo sat before the fire watching a pot which simmered there, with his slate and pencil in his hand; his father sat at the table buried in the columns of a three-weeks-old newspaper; and the stranger lay stretched on the bed in the corner, fast asleep, his mouth open, his great limbs stretched out loosely, betokening much weariness. The girl put the rations down upon the table, snuffed the candle, and stood looking at the figure on the bed.

“Old Otto,” she said presently, laying her hand down on the newspaper, and causing the old German to look up over his glasses, “how long did that man say he had been walking?”

“Since this morning, poor fellow! A gentleman—not accustomed to walking—horse died—poor fellow!” said the German, pushing out his lip and glancing commiseratingly over his page: 53 spectacles in the direction of the bed where the stranger lay, with his flabby double chin, and broken boots through which the flesh shone.

“And do you believe him, Uncle Otto?”

“Believe him? why of course I do. He himself told me the story three times distinctly.”

“If,” said the girl slowly, “he had walked for only one day his boots would not have looked so; and if—”

If!” said the German starting up in his chair, irritated that any one should doubt such irrefragable evidence—“if! Why, he told me himself! Look how he lies there,” added the German pathetically, “worn out—poor fellow! We have something for him though,” pointing with his forefinger over his shoulder to the saucepan that stood on the fire. “We are not cooks—not French cooks, not quite; but it's drinkable, drinkable, I think; better than nothing, I think,” he added, nodding his head page: 54 in a jocund manner that evinced his high estimation of the contents of the saucepan and his profound satisfaction therein. “Bish! bish! my chicken,” he said, as Lyndall tapped her little foot up and down upon the floor. “Bish! bish! my chicken; you will wake him.”

He moved the candle so that his own head might intervene between it and the sleeper's face; and, smoothing his newspaper, he adjusted his spectacles to read.

The child's grey-black eyes rested on the figure on the bed, then turned to the German, then rested on the figure again.

I think he is a liar. Good night, Uncle Otto,” she said slowly, turning to the door.

Long after she had gone the German folded his paper up methodically, and put it in his pocket.

The stranger had not awakened to partake of the soup, and his son had fallen asleep on the ground. Taking two white sheep-skins from page: 55 the heap of sacks in the corner, the old man doubled them up, and lifting the boy's head gently from the slate on which it rested, placed the skins beneath it.

“Poor lambie, poor lambie!” he said, tenderly patting the great rough head; “tired is he!”

He threw an overcoat across the boy's feet, and lifted the saucepan from the fire. There was no place where the old man could comfortably lie down himself, so he resumed his seat. Opening a much-worn Bible, he began to read, and as he read pleasant thoughts and visions thronged on him.

“I was a stranger, and ye took me in,” he read.

He turned again to the bed where the sleeper lay.

“I was a stranger.”

Very tenderly the old man looked at him. He saw not the bloated body nor the evil face of the man; but, as it were, under deep disguise page: 56 and fleshly concealment, the form that long years of dreaming had made very real to him. “Jesus, lover, and is it given to us, weak and sinful, frail and erring, to serve Thee, to take Thee in!” he said softly, as he rose from his seat. Full of joy, he began to pace the little room. Now and again as he walked he sang the lines of a German hymn, or muttered broken words of prayer. The little room was full of light. It appeared to the German that Christ was very near him, and that at almost any moment the thin mist of earthly darkness that clouded his human eyes might be withdrawn, and that made manifest of which the friends at Emmaus, beholding it, said, “It is the Lord!”

Again, and yet again, through the long hours of that night, as the old man walked he looked up to the roof of his little room, with its blackened rafters, and yet saw them not. His rough, bearded face was illuminated with a radiant gladness; and the night was not shorter page: 57 to the dreaming sleepers than to him whose waking dreams brought heaven near.

So quickly the night fled, that he looked up with surprise when at four o'clock the first grey streaks of summer dawn showed themselves through the little window. Then the old man turned to rake together the few coals that lay under the ashes, and his son, turning on the sheep-skins, muttered sleepily to know if it were time to rise.

“Lie still, lie still! I would only make a fire,” said the old man.

“Have you been up all night?” asked the boy.

“Yes; but it has been short, very short. Sleep again, my chicken; it is yet early.”

And he went out to fetch more fuel.

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