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The Story of an African Farm, vol. 1. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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page: 125
page: 126

CHAPTER VIII.

HE CATCHES THE OLD BIRD.

AT four o'clock the next afternoon the German rode across the plain, returning from his search for the lost sheep. He rode slowly, for he had been in the saddle since sunrise and was somewhat weary, and the heat of the afternoon made his horse sleepy as it picked its way slowly along the sandy road. Every now and then a great red spider would start out of the karroo on one side of the path and run across to the other, but nothing else broke the still monotony. Presently, behind one of the highest of the milk-bushes that dotted the roadside, the German caught sight of a Kaffir woman, seated there evidently for such shadow as the milk-bush page: 127 might afford from the sloping rays of the sun. The German turned the horse's head out of the road. It was not his way to pass a living creature without a word of greeting. Coming nearer, he found it was no other than the wife of the absconding Kaffir herd. She had a baby tied on her back by a dirty strip of red blanket; another strip hardly larger was twisted round her waist, for the rest her black body was naked. She was a sullen, ill-looking woman, with lips hideously protruding.

The German questioned her as to how she came there. She muttered in broken Dutch that she had been turned away. Had she done evil? She shook her head sullenly. Had she had food given her? She grunted a negative, and fanned the flies from her baby. Telling the woman to remain where she was, he turned his horse's head to the road and rode off at a furious pace.

“Hard-hearted! cruel! Oh, my God! Is this the way? Is this charity?”

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“Yes, yes, yes,” ejaculated the old man as he rode on; but, presently, his anger began to evaporate, his horse's pace slackened, and by the time he had reached his own door he was nodding and smiling.

Dismounting quickly, he went to the great chest where his provisions were kept. Here he got out a little meal, a little mealies, a few roaster-cakes. These he tied up in three blue handkerchiefs, and putting them into a sail-cloth bag, he strung them over his shoulders. Then he looked circumspectly out at the door. It was very bad to be discovered in the act of giving; it made him red up to the roots of his old grizzled hair. No one was about, however, so he rode off again. Beside the milk-bush sat the Kaffir woman still—like Hagar, he thought, thrust out by her mistress in the wilderness to die. Telling her to loosen the handkerchief from her head, he poured into it the contents of his bag. The woman tied it up in sullen silence.

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“You must try and get to the next farm,” said the German.

The woman shook her head; she would sleep in the field.

The German reflected. Kaffir women were accustomed to sleep in the open air; but then, the child was small, and after so hot a day the night might be chilly. That she would creep back to the huts at the homestead when the darkness favoured her, the German's sagacity did not make evident to him. He took off the old brown salt-and-pepper coat, and held it out to her. The woman received it in silence, and laid it across her knee. “With that they will sleep warmly; not so bad. Ha, ha!” said the German. And he rode home, nodding his head in a manner that would have made any other man dizzy.

“I wish he would not come back to-night,” said Em, her face wet with tears.

“It will be just the same if he comes back to-morrow,” said Lyndall.

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The two girls sat on the step of the cabin weeping for the German's return. Lyndall shaded her eyes with her hand from the sunset light.

“There he comes,” she said, “whistling ‘Ach Jerúsalem du schöne’ so loud I can hear him from here.”

“Perhaps he has found the sheep.”

“Found them!” said Lyndall. “He would whistle just so if he knew he had to die to-night.”

“You look at the sunset, eh, chickens?” the German said, as he came up at a smart canter. “Ah, yes, that is beautiful!” he added, as he dismounted, pausing for a moment with his hand on the saddle to look at the evening sky, where the sun shot up long flaming streaks, between which and the eye thin yellow clouds floated. “Ei! you weep?” said the German, as the girls ran up to him.

Before they had time to reply the voice of Tant' Sannie was heard.

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“You child, of the child, of the child of a Kaffir's dog, come here!”

The German looked up. He thought the Dutch-woman, come out to cool herself in the yard, called to some misbehaving Kaffir. The old man looked round to see who it might be.

“You old vagabond of a praying German, are you deaf?”

Tant' Sannie stood before the steps of the kitchen; upon them sat the lean Hottentot, upon the highest stood Bonaparte Blenkins, both hands folded under the tails of his coat, and his eyes fixed on the sunset sky.

The German dropped the saddle on the ground.

“Bish, bish, bish! what may this be?” he said, and walked toward the house. “Very strange!”

The girls followed him: Em still weeping; Lyndall with her face rather white and her eyes wide open.

“And I have the heart of a devil, did you page: 132 say? You could run me through with a knife, could you?” cried the Dutch-woman. “I could not drive the Kaffir girl away because I was afraid of you, was I? Oh, you miserable rag! I loved you, did I? I would have liked to marry you, would I? would I? WOULD I?” cried the Boer-woman; “you cat's tail, you dog's paw! Be near my house to-morrow morning when the sun rises,” she gasped, “my Kaffirs will drag you through the sand. They would do it gladly, any of them, for a bit of tobacco, for all your prayings with them.”

“I am bewildered, I am bewildered, said the German, standing before her and raising his hand to his forehead; “I—I do not understand.”

“Ask him, ask him!” cried Tant' Sannie, pointing to Bonaparte; “he knows. You thought he could not make me understand, but he did, he did, you old fool! I know enough English for that. You be here,” shouted the Dutch-woman, page: 133 “when the morning star rises, and I will let my Kaffirs take you out and drag you, till there is not one bone left in your old body that is not broken as fine as bobotie-meat, you old beggar! All your rags are not worth that they should be thrown out onto the ash-heap,” cried the Boer-woman; “but I will have them for my sheep. Not one rotten hoof of your old mare do you take with you; I will have her—all, all for my sheep that you have lost, you godless thing!”

The Boer-woman wiped the moisture from her mouth with the palm of her hand.

The German turned to Bonaparte, who still stood on the step absorbed in the beauty of the sunset.

“Do not address me; do not approach me, lost man,” said Bonaparte, not moving his eye nor lowering his chin. “There is a crime from which all nature revolts; there is a crime whose name is loathsome to the human ear— that crime is yours; that crime is ingratitude. This page: 134 woman has been your benefactress; on her farm you have lived; after her sheep you have looked; into her house you have been allowed to enter and hold Divine service—an honour of which you were never worthy; and how have you rewarded her?—Basely, basely, basely!”

“But it is all false, lies and falsehoods. I must, I will speak,” said the German, suddenly looking round bewildered. “Do I dream? Are you mad? What may it be?”

“Go, dog,” cried the Dutchwoman; “I would have been a rich woman this day if it had not been for your laziness. Praying with the Kaffirs behind the kraal walls. Go, you Kaffir's dog!”

“But what then is the matter? What may have happened since I left?” said the German, turning to the Hottentot woman who sat upon the step.

She was his friend; she would tell him kindly the truth. The woman answered by a loud, ringing laugh.

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“Give it him, old missis! Give it him!”

It was so nice to see the white man who had been master hunted down. The coloured woman laughed, and threw a dozen mealie grains into her mouth to chew.

All anger and excitement faded from the old man's face. He turned slowly away and walked down the little path to his cabin, with his shoulders bent; it was all dark before him. He stumbled over the threshold of his own well-known door.

Em, sobbing bitterly, would have followed him; but the Boer-woman prevented her by a flood of speech which convulsed the Hottentot, so low were its images.

“Come, Em,” said Lyndall, lifting her small proud head, “let us go in. We will not stay to hear such language.”

She looked into the Boer-woman's eyes. Tant' Sannie understood the meaning of the look if not the words. She waddled after them, and page: 136 caught Em by the arm. She had struck Lyndall once years before, and had never done it again, so she took Em.

“So you will defy me, too, will you, you Englishman's ugliness!” she cried, and with one hand she forced the child down, and held her head tightly against her knee; with the other she beat her face, first upon one cheek and then upon the other.

For one instant Lyndall looked on, then she laid her small fingers on the Boer-woman's arm. With the exertion of half its strength Tant' Sannie might have flung the girl back upon the stones. It was not the power of the slight fingers, tightly though they clinched her broad wrist—so tightly that at bedtime the marks were still there; but the Boer-woman looked into the clear eyes and at the quivering white lips, and with a half-surprised curse relaxed her hold. The girl drew Em's arm through her own.

“Move!” she said to Bonaparte, who stood in page: 137 the door; and he, Bonaparte the invincible, in the hour of his triumph, moved to give her place.

The Hottentot ceased to laugh, and an uncomfortable silence fell on all the three in the doorway.

Once in their room, Em sat down on the floor and wailed bitterly. Lyndall lay on the bed with her arm drawn across her eyes, very white and still.

“Hoo, hoo!” cried Em; “and they won't let him take the grey mare; and Waldo has gone to the mill. Hoo, hoo, and perhaps they won't let us go and say good-bye to him. Hoo, hoo, hoo!”

“I wish you would be quiet,” said Lyndall without moving. “Does it give you such felicity to let Bonaparte know he is hurting you? We will ask no one. It will be supper-time soon. Listen,—and when you hear the clink of the knives and forks we will go out and see him.

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Em suppressed her sobs and listened intently, kneeling at the door. Suddenly some one came to the window and put the shutter up.

“Who was that?” said Lyndall, starting.

“The girl, I suppose,” said Em. “How early she is this evening!”

But Lyndall sprang from the bed and seized the handle of the door, shaking it fiercely. The door was locked on the outside. She ground her teeth.

“What is the matter?” asked Em.

The room was in perfect darkness now.

“Nothing,” said Lyndall quietly; “only they have locked us in.”

She turned, and went back to bed again. But ere long Em heard a sound of movement. Lyndall had climbed up into the window, and with her fingers felt the wood-work that surrounded the panes. Slipping down, the girl loosened the iron knob from the foot of the bedstead, and climbing up again, she broke with it every pane of glass page: 139 in the window, beginning at the top and ending at the bottom.

“What are you doing?” asked Em, who heard the falling fragments.

Her companion made her no reply; but with all her weight leaned on every little cross-bar, which cracked and gave way beneath her. Then she pressed with all her strength against the shutter. She had thought the wooden buttons would give way, but by the clinking sound she knew that the iron bar had been put across. She was quite quiet for a time. Clambering down, she took from the table a small one-bladed penknife, with which she began to peck at the hard wood of the shutter.

“What are you doing now?” asked Em, who had ceased crying in her wonder, and had drawn near.

“Trying to make a hole?” was the short reply.

“Do you think you will be able to?”

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“No; but I am trying.”

In an agony of suspense Em waited. For ten minutes Lyndall pecked. The hole was three-eighths of an inch deep—then the blade sprang into ten pieces.

“What has happened now?” Em asked, blubbering afresh.

“Nothing,” said Lyndall. “Bring me my night-gown, a piece of paper, and the matches.”

Wondering, Em fumbled about till she found them.

“What are you going to do with them,” she whispered.

“Burn it down.”

“But won't the whole house take fire and burn down too?”

“Yes.”

“But will it not be very wicked?”

“Yes, very. And I don't care.”

She arranged the night-gown carefully in the corner of the window, with the chips of the page: 141 frame about it. There was only one match in the box. She drew it carefully along the wall. For a moment it burnt up blue, and showed the tiny face with its glistening eyes. She held it carefully to the paper. For an instant it burnt up brightly, then flickered and went out. She blew the spark, but it died also. Then she threw the paper on to the ground, trod on it, and went to her bed, and began to undress.

Em rushed to the door, knocking against it wildly.

“Tant' Sannie! Tant' Sannie! Oh, let us out!” she cried. “Oh, Lyndall, what are we to do?”

Lyndall wiped a drop of blood off the lip she had bitten.

“I am going to sleep,” she said. “If you like to sit there and howl till the morning, do. Perhaps you will find that it helps; I never heard that howling helped any one.”

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Long after, when Em herself had gone to bed and was almost asleep, Lyndall came and stood at her bedside.

“Here,” she said, slipping a little pot of powder into her hand; “rub some on to your face. Does it not burn where she struck you?”

Then she crept back to her own bed. Long, long after, when Em was really asleep, she lay still awake, and folded her hands on her little breast, and muttered,—

“When that day comes, and I am strong, I will hate everything that has power, and help everything that is weak.” And she bit her lip again.

The German looked out at the cabin door for the last time that night. Then he paced the room slowly and sighed. Then he drew out pen and paper, and sat down to write, rubbing his old grey eyes with his knuckles before he began.

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“MY CHICKENS,

“You did not come to say good-bye to the old man. Might you? Ah, well, there is a land where they part no more, where saints immortal reign.

“I sit here alone, and I think of you. Will you forget the old man? When you wake to-morrow he will be far away. The old horse is lazy, but he has his stick to help him; that is three legs. He comes back one day with gold and diamonds. Will you welcome him? Well, we shall see. I go to meet Waldo. He comes back with the waggon; then he follows me. Poor boy! God knows. There is a land where all things are made right, but that land is not here.

“My little children, serve the Saviour; give your hearts to Him while you are yet young. Life is short.

“Nothing is mine, otherwise I would say, Lyndall, take my books, Em my stones. Now I say nothing. The things are mine; it is not righteous, God knows! But I am silent. Let it be. But I feel it, I must say I feel it.

“Do not cry too much for the old man. He

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goes out to seek his fortune, and comes back with it in a bag, it may be.

“I love my children. Do they think of me? I am Old Otto, who goes out to seek his fortune.

“O.F.”

Having concluded this quaint production, he put it where the children would find it the next morning, and proceeded to prepare his bundle. He never thought of entering a protest against the loss of his goods; like a child, he submitted, and wept. He had been there eleven years, and it was hard to go away. He spread open on the bed a blue handkerchief, and on it put one by one the things he thought most necessary and important—a little bag of curious seeds, which he meant to plant some day, an old German hymn-book, three misshapen stones that he greatly valued, a Bible, a shirt and two handkerchiefs; then there was room for nothing more. He tied up the bundle tightly and put it on a chair by his bed-side.

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“That is not much; they cannot say I take much,” he said, looking at it.

He put his knotted stick beside it, his blue tobacco bag and his short pipe, and then inspected his coats. He had two left—a moth-eaten over-coat and a black alpaca out at the elbows. He decided for the over-coat; it was warm, certainly, but then he could carry it over his arm and only put it on when he met some one along the road. It was more respectable than the black alpaca. He hung the great-coat over the back of the chair, and stuffed a hard bit of roaster-cake under the knot of the bundle, and then his preparations were completed. The German stood contemplating them with much satisfaction. He had almost forgotten his sorrow at leaving in his pleasure at preparing. Suddenly he started; an expression of intense pain passed over his face. He drew back his left arm quickly, and then pressed his right hand upon his breast.

“Ah, the sudden pang again,” he said.

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His face was white, but it quickly regained its colour. Then the old man busied himself in putting everything right.

“I will leave it neat. They shall not say I did not leave it neat,” he said. Even the little bags of seeds on the mantel-piece he put in rows and dusted. Then he undressed and got into bed. Under his pillow was a little story-book. He drew it forth. To the old German a story was no story. Its events were as real and as important to himself as the matters of his own life. He could not go away without knowing whether that wicked Earl relented and whether the Baron married Emilina. So he adjusted his spectacles and began to read. Occasionally, as his feelings became too strongly moved, he ejaculated, “Ah, I thought so!—That was a rogue!—I saw it before!—I knew it from the beginning!” More than half-an-hour had passed when he looked up to the silver watch at the top of his bed.

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“The march is long to-morrow; this will not do,” he said, taking off his spectacles and putting them carefully into the book to mark the place. “This will be good reading as I walk along to-morrow,” he added, as he stuffed the book into the pocket of the great-coat; “very good reading.” He nodded his head and lay down. He thought a little of his own troubles, a good deal of the two little girls he was leaving, of the Earl, of Emilina, of the Baron; but he was soon asleep—sleeping as peacefully as a little child upon whose innocent soul sorrow and care cannot rest.

It was very quiet in the room. The coals in the fire-place threw a dull red light across the floor upon the red lions on the quilt. Eleven o'clock came, and the room was very still. One o'clock came. The glimmer had died out, though the ashes were still warm, and the room was very dark. The grey mouse, who had its hole under the tool-box, came out and sat on the sacks in page: 148 the corner; then, growing bolder, the room was so dark, it climbed the chair at the bedside, nibbled at the roaster-cake, took one bite quickly at the candle, and then sat on his haunches listening. It heard the even breathing of the old man, and the steps of the hungry Kaffir dog going his last round in search of a bone or a skin that had been forgotten; and it heard the white hen call out as the wild cat ran away with one of her brood, and it heard the chicken cry. Then the grey mouse went back to its hole under the tool-box, and the room was quiet. And two o'clock came. By that time the night was grown dull and cloudy. The wild cat had gone to its home on the kopje; the Kaffir's dog had found a bone, and lay gnawing it.

An intense quiet reigned everywhere. Only in her room the Boer-woman tossed her great arms in her sleep; for she dreamed that a dark shadow with outstretched wings fled slowly over page: 149 her house, and she moaned and shivered. And the night was very still.

But quiet as all places were, there was a quite peculiar quiet in the German's room. Though you strained your ear most carefully you caught no sound of breathing.

He was not gone, for the old coat still hung on the chair—the coat that was to be put on when he met any one; and the bundle and stick were ready for to-morrow's long march. The old German himself lay there, his wavy black hair just touched with grey thrown back upon the pillow. The old face was lying there alone in the dark, smiling like a little child's—oh, so peacefully. There is a stranger whose coming, they say, is worse than all the ills of life, from whose presence we flee away trembling; but he comes very tenderly sometimes. And it seemed almost as though Death had known and loved the old man, so gently it touched him. And how could it deal hardly page: 150 with him—the loving, simple, childlike old man?

So it smoothed out the wrinkles that were in the old forehead, and fixed the passing smile, and sealed the eyes that they might not weep again; and then the short sleep of time was melted into the long, long sleep of eternity.

“How has he grown so young in this one night?” they said when they found him in the morning.

Yes, dear old man; to such as you time brings no age. You die with the purity and innocence of your childhood upon you, though you die in your grey hairs.

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