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The Story of an African Farm, vol. 1. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
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page: 150
page: 151

CHAPTER IX.

HE SEES A GHOST.

BONAPARTE stood on the ash-heap. He espied across the plain a moving speck, and he chucked his coat-tails up and down in expectancy of a dainty morsel.

The waggon came on slowly. Waldo lay curled among the sacks at the back of the waggon, his hand in his breast resting on the sheep-shearing machine. It was finished now. The right thought had struck him the day before as he sat, half asleep, watching the water go over the mill-wheel. He muttered to himself with half-closed eyes,—

“To-morrow smooth the cogs—tighten the screws a little—show it to them.” Then after a page: 152 pause—“Over the whole world—the whole world—mine, that I have made!” He pressed the little wheels and pulleys in his pocket till they cracked. Presently his muttering became louder—“And fifty pounds—a black hat for my dad—for Lyndall a blue silk, very light, and one purple like the earth-bells, and white shoes.” He muttered on—“A box full, full of books. They shall tell me all, all, all,” he added, moving his fingers desiringly: “why the crystals grow in such beautiful shapes; why lightning runs to the iron; why black people are black; why the sunlight makes things warm. I shall read, read, read,” he muttered slowly. Then came over him suddenly what he called “The presence of God;” a sense of a good, strong something folding him round. He smiled through his half-shut eyes. “Ah, Father, my own Father, it is so sweet to feel you, like the warm sunshine. The Bibles and books cannot tell of you and all I feel you. They are mixed with men's words; but you—”

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His muttering sank into inaudible confusion, till, opening his eyes wide, it struck him that the brown plain he looked at was the old home farm. For half an hour they had been riding in it, and he had not known it. He roused the leader, who sat nodding on the front of the waggon in the early morning sunlight. They were within half a mile of the homestead. It seemed to him that he had been gone from them all a year. He fancied he could see Lyndall standing on the brick wall to watch for him; his father, passing from one house to the other, stopping to look.

He called aloud to the oxen. For each one at home he had brought something. For his father a piece of tobacco, bought at the shop by the mill; for Em a thimble; for Lyndall a beautiful flower dug out by the roots, at a place where they had “out-spanned”; for Tant' Sannie a handkerchief. When they drew near the house he threw the whip to the Kaffir leader, and sprang page: 154 from the side of the waggon to rush on. Bonaparte stopped him as he ran past the ash-heap.

“Good morning, my dear boy. Where are you running to so fast with your rosy cheeks?”

The boy looked up at him, glad even to see Bonaparte.

“I am going to the cabin,” he said, out of breath.

“You won't find them in just now—not your good old father,” said Bonaparte.

“Where is he?” asked the lad.

“There, beyond the camps,” said Bonaparte, waving his hand oratorically toward the stone-walled ostrich-camps.

“What is he doing there?” asked the boy.

Bonaparte patted him on the cheek kindly.

“He smelt so, we could not keep him any more. We've buried him, my boy,” said Bonaparte, sticking his finger into the boy's cheek. “He was quite bad already. He, he, he!” laughed Bonaparte, as the boy fled away page: 155 along the low stone wall, almost furtively, as one in fear. There was a gurgling of enjoyment in the man's stomach.

* * * * *

At five o'clock Bonaparte knelt before a box in the German's room. He was busily unpacking it.

It had been agreed upon between Tant' Sannie and himself, that now the German was gone he, Bonaparte, was to be no longer schoolmaster, but overseer of the farm. In return for his past scholastic labours he had expressed himself willing to take possession of the dead man's goods and room. Tant' Sannie hardly liked the arrangement. She had a great deal more respect for the German dead than the German living, and would rather his goods had been allowed to descend peacefully to his son. For she was a firm believer in the chinks in the world above, where not only ears, but eyes might be applied to see how things went on in this world below. page: 156 She never felt sure how far the spirit-world might overlap this world of sense, and, as a rule, prudently abstained from doing anything which might offend unseen auditors. For this reason she abstained from ill-using the dead Englishman's daughter and niece, and for this reason she would rather the boy had had his father's goods. But it was hard to refuse Bonaparte anything when she and he sat so happily together in the evening drinking coffee, Bonaparte telling her in the broken Dutch he was fast learning how he adored fat women, and what a splendid farmer he was.

So at five o'clock on this afternoon Bonaparte knelt in the German's room.

“Somewhere, here it is,” he said, as he packed the old clothes carefully out of the box, and, finding nothing, packed them in again. “Somewhere in this room it is; and if it's here Bonaparte finds it,” he repeated. “You didn't stay here all these years without making a little pile page: 157 somewhere, my lamb. You weren't such a fool as you looked. Oh, no!” said Bonaparte.

He now walked about the room, diving his fingers in everywhere: sticking them into the great crevices in the wall and frightening out the spiders; rapping them against the old plaster till it cracked and fell in pieces; peering up the chimney, till the soot dropped on his bald head and blackened it. He felt in little bags; he tried to raise the hearth stone; he shook each book, till the old leaves fell down in showers on the floor.

It was getting dark, and Bonaparte stood with his finger on his nose reflecting. Finally he walked to the door, behind which hung the trousers and waistcoat the dead man had last worn. He had felt in them but hurriedly just after the funeral the day before; he would examine them again. Sticking his fingers into the waistcoat pockets, he found in one corner a hole. Pressing his hand through it, between the page: 158 lining and the cloth, he presently came into contact with something. Bonaparte drew it forth—a small, square parcel, sewed up in sail-cloth. He gazed at it, squeezed it; it cracked, as though full of bank notes. He put it quickly into his own waistcoat pocket, and peeped over the half-door to see if there was no one coming. Then he sat down on the nearest chair, and taking out his pen-knife, ripped it open. The first thing that fell was a shower of yellow, faded papers. Bonaparte opened them carefully one by one, and smoothed them out on his knee. They were certainly something very valuable to be hidden so carefully, though the German characters he could not decipher. When he came to the last one, he felt there was something hard in it.

“You've got it, Bon, my boy! you've got it!” he cried, slapping his leg hard. Edging nearer to the door, for the light was fading, he opened it carefully. There was nothing inside but a plain gold wedding-ring.

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“Better than nothing!” said Bonaparte, trying to put it on his little finger, which, however, proved too fat.

He took it off and set it down on the table before him, and looked at it with his crosswise eyes.

“When that auspicious hour, Sannie,” he said, “shall have arrived, when, panting, I shall lead thee, lighted by Hymen's torch, to the connubial altar, then upon thy fair amaranthine finger, my joyous bride, shall this ring repose.
  • “Thy fair body, oh, my girl,
  • Shall Bonaparte possess;
  • His fingers in thy money-bags,
  • He therein, too, shall mess.”

Having given utterance to this flood of poesy, he sat lost in joyous reflection.

“He therein, too, shall mess,” he repeated meditatively.

At this instant, as Bonaparte swore, and swore truly, to the end of his life, a slow and distinct rap was given on the crown of his bald head.

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Bonaparte started and looked up. No “reim,” or strap hung down from the rafters above, and not a human creature was near the door. It was growing dark; he did not like it. He began to fold up the papers expeditiously. He stretched out his hand for the ring. The ring was gone! Gone, although no human creature had entered the room; gone, although no form had crossed the doorway. Gone!

He would not sleep there, that was certain.

He stuffed the papers into his pocket. As he did so, three slow and distinct taps were given on the crown of his head. Bonaparte's jaw fell: each separate joint lost its power: he could not move; he dared not rise; his tongue lay loose in his mouth.

“Take all, take all!” he gurgled in his throat. “I—I do not want them. Take—”

Here a resolute tug at the grey curls at the back of his head caused him to leap up, yelling wildly. Was he to sit still paralyzed, to be page: 161 dragged away bodily to the devil? With terrific shrieks he fled, casting no glance behind.

* * * * *

When the dew was falling, and the evening was dark, a small figure moved toward the gate of the furthest ostrich camp, driving a bird before it. When the gate was opened and the bird driven in turned away, but then suddenly paused.

“Is that you, Waldo?” said Lyndall.

The boy was sitting on the damp ground with his back to the wall. He gave her no answer.

“Come,” she said, bending over him, “I have been looking for you all day.”

He mumbled something.

“You have had nothing to eat. I have put some supper in your room. You must come home with me, Waldo.”

She took his hand, and the boy rose slowly.

She made him take her arm, and twisted her small fingers among his.

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“You must forget,” she whispered. “Since it happened I walk, I talk, I never sit still. If we remember, we cannot bring back the dead.” She knit her little fingers closer among his. “Forgetting is the best thing. He did not watch it coming,” she whispered presently. “That is the dreadful thing, to see it coming!” She shuddered. “I want it to come suddenly to me too. Why do you think I was driving that bird?” she added quickly. “That was Hans, the bird that hates Bonaparte. I let him out this afternoon; I thought he would chase him and perhaps kill him.”

The boy showed no sign of interest.

“He didn't; but he put his head over the half door of your cabin and frightened him horribly. He was there busy stealing your things. Perhaps he will leave them alone now; but I wish the bird had trodden on him.”

They said no more till they reached the door of the cabin.

“There is a candle and supper on the table. page: 163 You must eat,” she said authoritatively. “I cannot stay with you now, lest they find out about the bird.”

He grasped her arm and brought his mouth close to her ear.

“There is no God!” he almost hissed; “no God, not anywhere!”

She started.

“Not anywhere!”

He ground it out between his teeth, and she felt his hot breath on her cheek.

“Waldo, you are mad,” she said, drawing herself from him.

He loosened his grasp and turned away from her also.

In truth, it is life's way. We fight our little battles alone; you yours, I mine. We are not to help or find help. When your life is most real, you seem to me mad; when your agony is greatest I look at you and wonder. Friendship is good, but it is a delusion.

page: 164

Lyndall stood by him in the dark, pityingly, wonderingly. As he walked to the door she ran after him.

“Eat your supper; it will do you good,” she said.

She pressed his hand and then ran away.

In the front room the little woolly Kaffir girl was washing Tant' Sannie's feet in a small tub, and Bonaparte, who sat on the wooden sofa, was pulling off his shoes and stockings that his own feet might be washed also. There were three candles burning in the room, and he and Tant' Sannie sat close together, with the lean Hottentot not far off; for when ghosts are about there is great strength in numbers. Bonaparte had completely recovered from the effects of his fright in the afternoon, and the numerous doses of brandy that it had been necessary to administer to him to effect his restoration had put him into a singularly pleasant and amiable mood.

“That boy Waldo,” said Bonaparte, rubbing page: 165 his toes, “took himself off coolly this morning as soon as the waggon came, and has not done a stiver of work all day. I'll not have that kind of thing now I'm master of this farm.”

The Hottentot maid translated.

“Ah, I expect he's sorry that his father's dead,” said Tant' Sannie. “It's nature, you know. I cried the whole morning when my father died. One can always get another husband, but one can't get another father,” said Tant' Sannie, casting a sidelong glance at Bonaparte.

Bonaparte expressed a wish to give Waldo his orders for the next day's work, and the little woolly-headed Kaffir was sent to call him. After some time he appeared, and stood in the doorway.

If they had dressed him in one of the swallow-tailed coats, and oiled his hair till the drops fell from it, and it lay as smooth as an elder's on sacrament Sunday, there would still have been something unanointed in the aspect of the page: 166 fellow. As it was, standing there in his strange old costume, his head presenting much the appearance of having been deeply rolled in sand, his eyelids swollen, the hair hanging over his forehead, and a dogged sullenness on his features, he presented most the appearance of an ill-conditioned young buffalo.

“Beloved Lord,” cried Tant' Sannie, “how he looks! Come in, boy. Couldn't you come and say good-day to me? Don't you want some supper?”

He said he wanted nothing, and turned his heavy eyes away from her.

“There's a ghost been seen in your father's room,” said Tant' Sannie. “If you're afraid you can sleep in the kitchen.”

“I will sleep in our room,” said the boy slowly.

“Well, you can go now,” she said; “but be up early to take the sheep. The herd—”

“Yes, be up early, my boy,” interrupted page: 167 Bonaparte, smiling. “I am to be master of this farm now; and we shall be good friends, I trust, very good friends, if you try to do your duty, my dear boy.”

Waldo turned to go, and Bonaparte, looking benignly at the candle, stretched out one unstockinged foot, over which Waldo, looking at nothing in particular, fell with a heavy thud upon the floor.

“Dear me! I hope you are not hurt, my boy,” said Bonaparte. “You'll have many a harder thing than that though, before you've got all you will get,” he added consolingly, as Waldo picked himself up.

The lean Hottentot laughed till the room rang again; and Tant' Sannie tittered till her sides ached.

When he had gone the little maid began to wash Bonaparte's feet.

“Oh, Lord, beloved Lord, how he did fall! I can't think of it,” cried Tant' Sannie, and she page: 168 laughed again. “I always did know he was not right; but this evening any one could see it,” she added, wiping the tears of mirth from her face. “His eyes are as wild as if the devil was in them. He never was like other children. The dear Lord knows, if he doesn't walk alone for hours talking to himself. If you sit in the room with him you can see his lips moving the whole time; and if you talk to him twenty times he doesn't hear you. Daft-eyes; he's as mad as mad can be.”

This repetition of the word mad conveyed meaning to Bonaparte's mind. He left off paddling his toes in the water.

“Mad, mad? I know that kind of mad,” said Bonaparte, “and I know the thing to give for it. The front end of a little horse-whip, the tip! Nice thing; takes it out,” said Bonaparte.

The Hottentot laughed, and translated.

“No more walking about and talking to themselves on this farm now,” said Bonaparte; “no page: 169 more minding of sheep and reading of books at the same time. The point of a horsewhip is a little thing, but I think he'll have a taste of it before long.” Bonaparte, rubbing his hands and looking pleasantly across his nose; and then the three laughed together grimly.

And Waldo in his cabin crouched in the dark in a corner, with his knees drawn up to his chin.

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