Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options

View Options

The Story of an African Farm, vol. 1. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
no next
page: 236


“And it was all play, and no one could tell what it had lived and worked for. A striving, and a striving, and an ending in nothing.”

page: 239


Times and Seasons.

WALDO lay on his stomach on the sand. Since he prayed and howled to his God in the fuel-house three years had passed.

They say that in the world to come time is not measured out by months and years. Neither is it here. The soul's life has seasons of its own; periods not found in any calendar, times that years and months will not scan, but which are as deftly and sharply cut off from one another as the smoothly-arranged years which the earth's motion yields us.

To stranger eyes these divisions are not evident; but each, looking back at the little page: 240 track his consciousness illuminates, sees it cut into distinct portions, whose boundaries are the termination of mental states.

As man differs from man, so differ these souls' years. The most material life is not devoid of them; the story of the most spiritual is told in them. And it may chance that some, looking back, see the past cut out after this fashion:—


The year of infancy, where from the shadowy background of forgetfulness start out pictures of startling clearness, disconnected, but brightly coloured, and indelibly printed in the mind. Much that follows fades, but the colours of those baby-pictures are permanent.

There rises, perhaps, a warm summer's evening; we are seated on the door-step; we have yet the taste of the bread and milk in our mouth, and the red sunset is reflected in our basin.

page: 241

Then there is a dark night, where, waking with a nameless fear, we run from our own bed to another, creep close to some large figure, and are comforted.

Then there is remembrance of the pride when, on some one's shoulder, with our arms around their head, we ride to see the little pigs.

Remembrance of delight in the feel and smell of the first orange we ever see; of sorrow which makes us put up our lip, and cry hard, when one morning we run out to try and catch the dew-drops, and they melt and wet our little fingers; of almighty and despairing sorrow when we are lost behind the kraals, and cannot see the house anywhere.

And then one picture starts out more vividly than any.

There has been a thunder-storm; the ground, as far as the eye can reach, is covered with white hail; the clouds are gone, and overhead a deep blue sky is showing; far off a great page: 242 rainbow rests on the white earth. We, standing in a window to look, feel the cool, unspeakably sweet wind blowing in on us, and a feeling of longing comes over us—unutterable longing, we cannot tell for what. We look at the white earth, and the rainbow, and the blue sky; and oh, we want it, we want—we do not know what. We cry as though our heart was broken. When one lifts our little body from the window we cannot tell what ails us. We run away to play.

So looks the first year.


Now the pictures become continuous and connected. Material things still rule, but the spiritual and intellectual take their places.

In the dark night when we are afraid we pray and shut our eyes. We press our fingers very hard upon the lids, and see dark spots page: 243 moving round and round, and we know they are heads and wings of angels sent to take care of us, seen dimly in the dark as they move round our bed. It is very consoling.

In the day we learn our letters, and are troubled because we cannot see why k-n-o-w should be know, and p-s-a-l-m psalm. They tell us it is so because it is so. We are not satisfied; we hate to learn; we like better to build little stone houses. We can build them as we please, and know the reason for them.

Other joys too we have incomparably greater.

We are run through with a shudder of delight when in the red sand we come on one of those white wax-flowers that lie between their two green leaves flat on the sand. We hardly dare pick them, but we feel compelled to do so; and we smell and smell till the delight becomes almost pain. Afterwards we pull the green leaves softly into pieces to see the silk threads run across.

Beyond the “kopje” grow some dull-green, page: 244 hairy-leaved bushes. We are so small they meet over our head; and we sit among them, and talk to them, and kiss them, and they love us back.

One day we sit there and look up at the blue sky, and down at our fat little knees; and suddenly it strikes us, Who are we? This I, what is it? We try to look in upon ourselves, and ourself beats back upon ourself. Then we get up in great fear and run home as hard as we can. We can't tell any one what frightened us. We never quite lose that feeling of self again.


And then a new time rises. We are seven years old. We can read now—read the Bible. Best of all we like the story of Elijah in his cave at Horeb, and the still small voice.

One day, a notable one, we read on the page: 245 “kopje,” and discover the fifth chapter of Matthew, and read it all through. Then we tuck the Bible under our arm and rush home. They didn't know it was wicked to take your things again if some one took them, wicked to go to law, wicked to—! We are quite breathless when we get to the house; we tell them we have discovered a chapter they never heard of; we tell them what it says. The old wise people tell us they knew all about it. Our discovery is a mare's-nest to them; but to us it is very real. The ten commandments and the old “Thou shalt” we have heard about long enough and don't care about it; but this new law sets us on fire. We will deny ourself. Our little waggon that we have made, we give to the little Kaffirs. We keep quiet when they throw sand at us (feeling, oh, so happy). We conscientiously put the cracked tea-cup for ourselves at breakfast, and take the burnt roaster-cake. We save our money, and buy threepence of tobacco page: 246 for the Hottentot maid who calls us names. We are exotically virtuous. At night we are profoundly religious; even the ticking watch says, “Eternity, eternity! hell, hell, hell!” and the silence talks of God.

Occasionally, also, unpleasantly shrewd questions begin to be asked by something, we know not what, in ourselves. We get to know him better afterward. We carry the questions to the grown-up people. They give us answers; we are more or less satisfied for the time. The grown-up people are very wise, and they say it was kind of God to make hell, and very loving of Him to send men there; and besides, He couldn't help Himself, and they are very wise, we think, so we believe them.


Then a new time comes of which the leading feature is, that the shrewd questions are asked page: 247 louder. We carry them to the grown-up people; they answer us, and we are not satisfied.

And now between us and the dear old world of the senses the spirit-world begins to peep in, and wholly clouds it over. What are the flowers to us? They are fuel waiting for the great burning. We look at the walls of the farmhouse and the matter-of-fact sheep “kraals,” with the merry sunshine playing over all, and do not see it. But we see a great white throne, and Him that sits on it. Around Him stand a great multitude that no man can number, harpers harping with their harps, a thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands. How white are their robes, washed in the blood of the Lamb! And the music rises higher, and rends the vault of heaven with its unutterable sweetness. And we, as we listen, ever and anon, as it sinks on the sweetest, lowest note, hear a groan of the damned from below. We shudder in the sunlight.

page: 248

“The torment,” says Jeremy Taylor, whose sermons our father reads aloud in the evening, “comprises as many torments as the body of man has joints, sinews, arteries, &c., being caused by that penetrating and real fire, of which this temporal fire is but a painted fire. What comparison will there be between burning for a hundred years' space and to be burning without intermission as long as God is God?”

We remember the sermon there in the sunlight. One comes and asks why we sit there nodding so moodily. Ah, they do not see what we see.
  • “A moment's time, a narrow space,
  • Divides me from that heavenly place,
  • Or shuts me up in hell.”
So says Wesley's hymn, which we sing evening by evening. What matter sunshine and walls, men and books?

“The things which are seen are temporal, but page: 249 the things which are not seen are eternal.” They are real.

The Bible we bear always in our breast; its pages are our food; we learn to repeat it; we weep much, for in sunshine and in shade, in the early morning or the late evening, in the field or in the house, the Devil walks with us. He comes to a real person, copper-coloured face, head a little on one side, forehead knit, asking questions. Believe me, it would be better to be followed by three deadly diseases than by him. He is never silenced, never satisfied—without mercy. Though the drops of blood stand out on your heart he will put his question. Softly he comes up (we are only a wee bit child, mark you); “Is it good of God to make hell? Was it kind of Him to let no one be forgiven unless Jesus Christ died?”

Then he goes off, and leaves us writhing. Presently he comes back.

“Do you love Him?”—waits a little. “Do page: 250 you love Him? You will be lost if you don't.”

We say we try to.

“But do you?” Then he goes off.

It is nothing to him if we go quite mad with fear at our own wickedness. He asks on, the questioning Devil; he cares nothing what he says. We long to tell some one, that they may share our pain. We do not yet know that the cup of affliction is made with such a narrow mouth that only one lip can drink at a time, and that each man's cup is made to match his lip.

One day we try to tell some one. Then a grave head is shaken solemnly at us. We are wicked, very wicked, they say we ought not to have such thoughts. God is good, very good. We are wicked, very wicked. That is the comfort we get. Wicked! Oh, Lord! do we not know it? Is it not the sense of our own exceeding wickedness that is drying up our page: 251 young heart, filling it with sand, making all life a dust-bin for us?

Wicked? We know it! Too vile to live, too vile to die, too vile to creep over this, God's earth, and move among His believing men. Hell is the one place for him who hates his master, and there we do not want to go.

And once again we try to seek for comfort. This time great eyes look at us wondering, and lovely little lips say,—

“If it makes you so unhappy to think of these things, why do you not think of something else, and forget?

Forget? We turn away and shrink into ourself. Forget? and think of other things? Oh, God! do they not understand that the material world is but a film, through every pore of which God's awful spirit world is shining through on us, poor miserable little wretches that we are? We keep as far from others as we can.

One night, we kneel in the window; every one page: 252 else sleeps, but we kneel reading by the moonlight. It is only a chapter of the prophets, telling how the chosen people of God shall be carried on the Gentiles' shoulders. Surely the Devil might leave us alone; there is not much to handle for him there. But presently we hear him.

“Is it right there should be a chosen people? If you should be chosen out, would it be right, fair?”

How can we answer him? We were feeling so good till he came. We put our head down on the Bible and blister it with tears. Then we fold our hands over our head and pray, till our teeth grind together. Oh, that from that spirit-world, so real and yet so silent, that surrounds us, one word would come to guide us! We are left alone with this devil; the angels do not come. Suddenly we seize the Bible, turning it round and round, and say hurriedly,—

“It will be God's voice speaking to us; His voice as though we heard it.”

page: 253

We yearn, oh, so hugrily, for a token from the inexorably silent One.

We turn the book, put our finger down on a page, and bend to read by the moonlight. It is God's answer. We tremble.

“Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also.”

For an instant our imagination seizes it; we are twisting, twirling, trying to make an allegory. The fourteen years are fourteen months; we are Paul and the devil is Barnabas, Titus is— Then a sudden loathing comes to us: we are liars and hypocrites, we are trying to deceive ourselves. What is Paul to us—and Jerusalem? Who are Barnabas and Titus? We know not the men. This is no answer. Before we know we seize the book, swing it round our head, and fling it with all our might to the farthest end of the room. We put down our head again and weep. Youth and ignorance yearning for light: page: 254 is there anything else that can weep so? It is as though the tears were drops of blood congealed beneath the eyelids; nothing else is like those tears. After a long time, when we are weak with crying, and lie silent, by chance we knock against the wood that stops the broken pane. It falls. Upon our hot stiff face a sweet breath of wind blows. We raise our head, and with our swollen eyes look out at the beautiful still world, and the sweet night wind blows in upon us, holy and gentle, like a loving breath from the lips of God. Over us a deep peace comes, a calm, still joy; the tears now flow readily and softly. Oh, the unutterable gladness! At last, at last we have found it! “The peace with God.” “The sense of sins forgiven.” All doubt vanished, God's voice in the soul, the Holy Spirit filling us! We feel Him! we feel Him! Oh, Jesus Christ! through you, through you, this joy! We press our hands upon our breast and look upward with adoring gladness. Soft waves of bliss break page: 255 through us. “The peace with God.” “The sense of sins forgiven.” Methodists and Revivalists say the words, and the mocking world shoots out its lip, and walks by smiling—“Hypocrite!”

There are more fools and fewer hypocrites than the wise world dreams of. Hypocrites are rare as icebergs in the tropics; fools common as buttercups beside a water-furrow: whether you go this way or that you tread on them; you dare not look at your own reflection in the water but you see one. There is no cant phrase, rotten with age, but it was the dress of a living body; none but at heart it signifies a real bodily or mental condition.

After hours and nights of frenzied fear of the supernatural, desire to appease the power above, a fierce quivering excitement in every inch of nerve and blood-vessel, there comes a time when nature cannot endure longer, and the spring long bent recoils. We sink down emasculated. Up creeps the deadly delicious calm.

page: 256

“I have blotted out as a cloud thy sins, and as a thick cloud thy trespasses, and will remember them no more for ever.” We weep with soft transporting joy.

A few experience this; many imagine they experience it, one here and there lies about it. In the main, “The peace with God; a sense of sins forgiven,” stands for a certain mental and physical reaction. Its reality those know who have felt it.

And we, on that moonlight night, put down our head on the window, “Oh, God! we are happy, happy; thy child forever. Oh, thank you, God!” and we drop asleep.

Next morning the Bible we kiss. We are God's forever. We go out to work, and it goes happily all day, happily all night; but hardly so happily, not happily at all, the next day; and the next night the devil asks us, “Where is your Holy Spirit?”

We cannot tell.

page: 257

So month by month, summer and winter, the old life goes on—reading, praying, weeping, praying. They tell us we become utterly stupid. We know it. Even the multiplication table we learnt with so much care we forgot. The physical world recedes further and further from us. Truly we love not the world, neither the things that are in it. Across the bounds of sleep our grief follows us. When we wake in the night we are sitting up in bed weeping bitterly, or find ourself outside in the moonlight, dressed, and walking up and down, and wringing our hands, and we cannot tell how we came there. So pass two years, as men reckon them.


Then a new time.

Before us there were three courses possible—to go mad, to die, to sleep.

page: 258

We take the latter course; nature takes it for us.

All things take rest in sleep; the beast, bird, the very flowers close their eyes, and the streams are frozen in winter. All things take rest in sleep; then why not the human reason also? So we drop asleep, and in that sleep a beautiful dream rises for us. Though you hear all the dreams of men, you will hardly find a prettier one than ours. It ran so:—

In the centre of all things is a Mighty Heart, which, having begotten all things, loves them; and, having born them into life, beats with great throbs of love towards them. No death for His dear insects, no hell for His loved men, no burning up for His dear world—His own, own world! In the end all will be well. Do not ask us how we make our dream tally with facts; the glory of a dream is this—that it despises facts, and makes its own. Our dream saves us from going mad; that is enough.

page: 259

Its peculiar point of sweetness lay here. When the Mighty Heart's yearning of love became too great for other expression, it became the sweet Rose of heaven, the beloved Man—God.

Jesus! you Jesus of our dream! how we loved you; no Bible tells of you as we know you. Your sweet hands held ours fast; your sweet voice said always, “I am here, my loved one, not far off; put your arms about Me.” We found Him in everything in those days. When the little weary lamb we drive home drags its feet, we seize on it, and carry it with its head against our face. His little lamb! We feel we have got Him.

When the drunken Kaffir lies by the road in the sun we draw his blanket over his head, and put green branches of milk-bush on it. His Kaffir; why should the sun hurt him?

In the evening, when the clouds lift themselves like gates, and the red lights shine through them, we cry; for in such glory He will come, page: 260 and the hands that ache to touch Him will hold him, and we shall see the beautiful hair and eyes of our God.

“Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and our King of glory shall come in!” The purple flowers, the little purple flowers are His eyes, looking at us. We kiss them, and kneel alone on the flat, rejoicing over them.

And the wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for Him, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as a rose. If ever in our tearful, joyful ecstasy the poor, sleepy, half-dead devil should raise his head, we laugh at him. It is not his hour now.

“If there should be a hell, after all!” he mutters. “If your God should be cruel! If there should be no God! If you should find out it is all imagination! If—”

We laugh at him. When a man sits in the warm sunshine, do you ask him for proof of it? page: 261 He feels—that is all. And we feel—that is all. We want no proof of our God. We feel, we feel!

Do we believe in our God because the Bible tells us of Him? We believe in the Bible because He tells us of it. We feel Him, we feel Him, we feel—that is all! And the poor, half-swamped Devil mutters—

“But if the day should come when you do not feel?”

And we laugh and cry him down.

“It will never come—never, never,” and the poor Devil slinks to sleep again, with his tail between his legs. Fierce assertion many times repeated is hard to stand against. It is most wisely met by silence. Time separates the truth from the lie. So we dream on.

One day we go to town and to church. The townspeople rustle in in their silks, and the men in their sleek cloth, and settle themselves in their pews, and the light shines in through the windows on the artificial flowers in the page: 262 women's bonnets. We have the same miserable feeling that we have in a shop where all the clerks are very smart. We wish our Father hadn't brought us to town, and we were out on the karroo. Then the man in the pulpit begins to preach. His text is “He that believeth not shall be damned.”

The day before an atheist has died in the street, struck by lightning.

The man in the pulpit mentions no name; but he talks of “The hand of God made visible among us.” He tells us how, when the white stroke fell, quivering and naked, the soul fled, robbed of his earthly filament, and lay at the footstool of God; how over its head has been poured out the wrath of the Mighty One, whose existence it has denied; and, quivering and terrified, it has fled to the everlasting night.

We, as we listen, half start up; every drop of blood in our body has rushed to our head. He lies! he lies! he lies! That man in the page: 263 pulpit lies! Will no one stop him? Have none of them heard—do none of them know, that when the poor, dark soul shut its eyes on earth it opened them in the still light of heaven? that there is no wrath where God is? that if one could once creep to the footstool of God, there is everlasting peace there? While the atheist lay wondering and afraid, God bent down and said, “My child, here I am—I, whom you have not known; I, whom you have not believed in; I am here. I sent My messenger, the white sheet-lightning, to call you home. I am here.”

Then the poor soul turned to the light—its weakness and pain were gone for ever.

Have they not known, have they not heard, who it is rules?

“For a little moment have I hidden My face from thee; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy upon thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.”

We mutter on to ourselves, till some one pulls page: 264 us violently by the arm to remind us we are in church. We see nothing but our own ideas.

Presently every one turns to pray. There are six hundred souls lifting themselves to the Everlasting Light.

Behind us sit two pretty ladies; one hands her scent-bottle softly to the other, and a mother pulls down her little girl's frock. One lady drops her handkerchief; a gentleman picks it up; she blushes. The women in the choir turn softly the leaves of their tune-books, to be ready when the praying is done. It is as though they thought more of the singing than the Everlasting Father. Oh, would it not be more worship of Him to sit alone in the karoo and kiss one little field flower that He had made? Is it not mockery? Then the thought comes, “What doest thou here, Elijah?” We who judge, what are we better than they?—rather worse. Is it any excuse to say we are but a child and must come? Does God allow any soul to step in page: 265 between the spirit he made and himself? What do we there in that place, where all the words to us seem lies of the All Father, and the worship a seeming. Filled with horror, we turn and flee out of the place. On the pavement we smite our foot, and swear in our child's soul, never again to enter those places where men come to worship. We are questioned afterwards. Why was it we went out of church?

How can we explain?—we stand silent. Then we are pressed further, and we try to tell. Upon that a head is shaken solemnly at us. No one can think it wrong to go to the house of the Lord; it is the idle excuse of a wicked boy. When will we think seriously of our souls, and love going to church? We are wicked, very wicked. And we—we slink away and go alone to cry. Will it be always so? If we hate and doubt, or believe and love, to our dearest, are we to seem always wicked, wicked, wicked? Nothing else!

page: 266

We do not yet know that in the soul's search for truth the bitterness lies here; the striving cannot always hide itself among the thoughts; sooner or later it will clothe itself in outward action; then it steps in and divides between us and our nearest. All things on earth have their price; and for truth we pay the dearest. We barter it for love and sympathy. The road to honour is paved with thorns; but on the path to truth, at every step you set your foot down on your own heart.


Then at last a new time—the time of waking: short, sharp, and not pleasant.

Sleep and dreams exist on this condition—that no one wake the dreamer.

And life takes us up between her finger and thumb, shakes us furiously, till our poor page: 267 nodding head is well-nigh rolled from our shoulders, and she sets us down a little hard on the bare earth, bruised and sore, but preternaturally wide awake.

We have said in our days of dreaming, “Injustice and wrong are a seeming; pain is a shadow. Our God, He is real, He who made all things, and He only is Love.”

Now life takes us by the neck and shows us a few other things,—new-made graves with the red sand flying about them; eyes that we love with the worms eating them; evil men walking sleek and fat,—and she says, “What do you think of these?” We dare not say “Nothing.” We feel them! we feel them! They are very real. But we try to lay our hands about and feel that other thing we felt before. In the dark night in the fuel-room we cry to our Beautiful dream-god: “Oh, let us come near you, and lay our head against your feet. Now in our hour of need be near page: 268 us.” But He is not there; He is gone away. The old questioning Devil is there; but He is not there; He is gone away.

We must have been awakened sooner or later. The imagination cannot always triumph over reality, the desires over truth. We must have been awakened. If it was done a little sharply, what matter? it was done thoroughly.


And a new life begins for us—a new time: the old looks indeed like a long hot delirium, peopled with phantasies.

Now we have no God. We have had two: the old God that our fathers handed down to us, that we hated, and never liked: the new one that we made for ourselves, that we loved; but one day he flitted away with the feelings that gave him birth, and we saw what he was made page: 269 of—the shadow of our highest ideal, crowned and throned. Now we have no God; we sit down without any.

“The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” It may be so. Most things said or written have been the work of fools.

This thing is certain—he is a fool who says, “No man hath said in his heart, There is no God.”

It has been said many thousand times in hearts with profound earnestess and bitter faith.

We do not cry and weep; we sit down with great cold eyes and look at the world. We are not miserable. Why should we be? We eat and drink, and sleep all night; but the dead are not colder.

And we say it slowly, but without sighing, “Yes, we see it now: there is no God.”

And, we add, growing a little colder yet, “There is no justice. The ox dies in the yoke, beneath its master's whip; it turns its anguish- page: 270 filled eyes on the sunlight, but there is no sign of recompense to be made it. The black man is shot like a dog, and it goes well with the shooter. The innocent are accused and the accuser triumphs. If you will take the trouble to scratch the surface anywhere, you will see under the skin a sentient being writhing in impotent anguish.”

And, we say further, and our heart is as the heart of the dead for coldness, “There is no orderer and no order: all things are driven about by a blind chance.”

What a soul drinks in with its mother's milk will not leave it in a day. From our earliest hour we have been taught that the thought of the heart, the shaping of the rain-cloud, the amount of wool that grows on a sheep's back, the length of a drought, and the growing of the corn, depend on nothing that moves immutable, deep at the heart of all things; but on the changeable will of a changeable being, whom our prayers can page: 271 alter. To us, from the beginning, nature has been but a poor plastic thing, to be toyed with this way or that, as man happens to please his deity or not; to go to church or not; to say his prayers right or not; to travel on a Sunday or not. Was it possible for us in an instant to see Nature as she is—the flowing vestment of an unchanging reality? When the soul breaks free from the arms of a superstition, bits of the claws and talons break themselves off in him. It is not the work of a day to squeeze them out.

And so, for us, the human-like driver and guider being gone, all existence, as we look out at it with our chilled, wondering eyes, is an aimless rise and swell of shifting waters. In all that weltering chaos we can see no spot so large as a man's hand on which we may plant our foot.

Whether a man believes in a human-like God or no is a small thing. It is a great and terrible when he looks into the mental and physical world and sees no relation between cause page: 272 and effect, no order, but a blind chance sporting. It were almost a mercy to cut his throat, if indeed he does not do it for himself.

We, however, do not cut our throats. To do so would imply some desire and feeling, and we have no desire and no feeling; we are only cold. We do not wish to live, and we do not wish to die. One day a snake curls itself round the waist of a Kaffir woman. We take it in our hand, swing it round and round, and fling it on the ground—dead. Every one looks at us with eyes of admiration. We almost laugh. Is it bravery to risk that for which we care nothing?

In truth, nothing matters. This dirty little world full of confusion, and the bit of blue stretched overhead for a sky, is worthless.

Existence, if it is not a dream, is a great pot, and the Fate who stirs it round cares nothing what rises to the top and what goes down, and laughs when the bubbles burst. And we do not care. Let it boil about. Why should we page: 273 trouble ourselves? Nevertheless the physical sensations are real. Hunger hurts, and thirst; therefore we eat and drink. Inaction pains us; therefore we work like galley-slaves. No one demands it, but we set ourselves to build a great dam in red sand beyond the graves. In the grey dawn before the sheep are let out we are working at it. All day, while the young ostriches we tend feed about us, we work on through the fiercest heat. The people wonder what new spirit has seized us now. They do not know we are working for our life. We bear the greatest stones, and feel a satisfaction when we stagger under them, and are hurt by a pang that shoots through our chest. While we eat our dinner we carry on baskets full of earth, as though the devil drove us. The Kaffir servants have a story that at night a witch and two white oxen come to help us. No wall, they say, could grow so quickly under one man's hands.

At night, alone in our cabin, we sit no more brooding over the fire. What should we think page: 274 of now? It is all emptiness. So we take the old arithmetic; and the multiplication table, which with so much pains we learnt long ago and forgot directly, we learn now in a few hours, and never forget again. We take a strange satisfaction in working arithmetical problems. We pause in our building to cover the stones with figures and calculations. We save money for a Latin Grammar and an Algebra, and carry them about in our pockets, poring over them as over our Bible of old. We have thought we were utterly stupid, incapable of remembering anything, of learning anything. Now we find that all is easy. Has a new soul crept into this old body, that even our intellectual faculties are changed? We marvel; not perceiving that what a man expends in prayer and ecstasy he cannot have over for acquiring knowledge. You never shed a tear, or create a beautiful image, or quiver with emotion, but you pay for it at the other end of your nature. You have just page: 275 so much force: when the one channel runs over the other runs dry.

And we turn to Nature. All these years we have lived beside her, and we have never seen her; and now we open our eyes and look at her.

The rocks have been to us a blur of brown: we bend over them, and the disorganised masses dissolve into a many-coloured, many-shaped, carefully-arranged form of existence. Here masses of rainbow-tinted crystals, half- fused together; there bands of smooth grey and red methodically overlying each other. This rock here is covered with a delicate silver tracery, in some mineral, resembling leaves and branches; there on the flat stone, on which we so often have sat to weep and pray, we look down, and see it covered with the fossil footprints of great birds, and the beautiful skeleton of a fish. We have often tried to picture in our mind what the fossiled remains of creatures must be like, and all the while we sat on them.

page: 276

The flat plain has been to us a reach of monotonous red. We look at it, and every handful of sand starts into life. That wonderful black people, the ants, we learn to know; see them make war and peace, play and work, and build their huge palaces. That smaller people we make acquaintance with also who live in the flowers. The bitto flower has been for us a mere blur of yellow; we find its heart composed of a hundred perfect flowers, the homes of the tiny black people with red stripes, who move in and out in that little yellow city. Every bluebell has its inhabitant. Every day the karroo shows us a new wonder sleeping in its teeming breast. On our way back to work we pause and stand to see the ground spider make its trap, bury itself in the sand, and then wait for the falling in of its enemy. Farther on walks a horned beetle, and near him starts open the door of a spider, who peeps out carefully, and quickly pulls it down again. On a karroo-bush a green fly is laying her silver eggs. We page: 277 carry them home, and see the shells pierced, the spotted grub come out, turn to a green fly, and go away. We are not satisfied with what Nature shows us, and we see something for ourselves. Under the white hen we put a dozen eggs, and break one daily, to see the white spot wax into the chicken. We are not excited or enthusiastic about it; but a man must think of something if he is to live at all. So we plant seeds in rows on our dam-wall, and pull one up daily to see how it goes with them. Allardeen buried her wonderful stone, and a golden palace sprung up at her feet. We do far more. We put a brown seed in the earth, and a living thing starts out before our eyes—starts upward—why, no more than Allardeen can we say—starts upward, and does not desist till it is higher than our heads, sparkling with dew in the early morning, glittering with yellow blossoms, shaking brown seeds with little embryo souls on to the ground. We look at it solemnly, from the time it is two small page: 278 leaves peeping above the ground and a soft white root, till we have to raise our faces to look at it; but we find no reason for that upward starting.

We look into dead ducks and lambs. In the evening we carry them home, spread newspapers on the floor, and lie working with them till midnight. With a started feeling near akin to ecstasy we open the lump of flesh called a heart, and find little doors and strings inside. We feel them, and put the heart away; but every now and then return to look, and to feel them again. Why we like them so we can hardly tell.

A gander drowns itself in our dam. We take it out, and open it on the bank, and kneel, looking at it. Above are the organs divided by delicate tissues; below are the intestines, artistically curved in a spiral form, and each tier covered by a delicate network of blood-vessels, standing out red against the faint blue background. Each branch of the blood-vessels is page: 279 comprised of a trunk, bifurcating and rebifurcating into the most delicate, hair-like threads, symmetrically arranged. We are struck with its singular beauty. And, moreover—and here we drop from our kneeling into a sitting posture—this also we remark: of that same exact shape and outline is our thorn-tree seen against the sky in midwinter: of that shape also is delicate metallic tracery between our rocks; in that exact path does our water flow when without a furrow we lead it from the dam; so shaped are the antlers of the horned beetle. How are these things related that such deep union should exist between them all? Is it chance? Can it be? Or, are they not all the fine branches of one trunk, whose sap flows through us all? That would explain it. We nod over the gander's inside.

This thing we call existence; is it not a something which has its roots far down below in the dark, and its branches stretching far out page: 280 into the immensity above, which we among the branches cannot see? Not a chance jumble; a living thing, a whole, a One.

We nod over the gander; then start up suddenly, look into the blue sky, throw the dead gander and the refuse into the dam, and go to work again.

And so, it comes to pass in time, that the earth ceases for us to be a weltering chaos. We walk in the great hall of the universe, our soul looking up and round reverentially. Nothing is despicable—all is meaning-full; nothing is small—all is part of a whole, whose beginning and end we know not. The life that throbs in us is a pulsation from it.

And so, it comes to pass at last, that whereas the sky was at first a small blue rag stretched out over us, and so low that our hands might touch it, pressing down on us, it raises itself into an immeasurable blue arch over our heads, and we begin to live again.

page: 281



WALDO lay on his stomach on the red sand. The small ostriches he herded wandered about him, pecking at the food he had cut, or at pebbles and dry sticks. On his right lay the graves; to his left the dam; in his hand was a large wooden post covered with carvings, at which he worked. Doss lay before him, basking in the winter sunshine, and now and again casting an expectant glance at the corner of the nearest ostrich camp. The scrubby thorn-trees under which they lay yielded no shade, but none was needed in that glorious June weather, when in the hottest part of the afternoon the sun was but pleasantly warm; and page: 282 the boy carved on, not looking up, yet conscious of the brown serene earth about him and the intensely blue sky above.

Presently, at the corner of the camp, Em appeared, bearing a covered saucer in one hand and in the other a jug, with a cup in the top. She was grown into a premature little old woman, ridiculously fat, and wearing long dresses. The jug and saucer she put down on the ground before the dog and his master and dropped down beside them herself, panting and out of breath.

“Oh, Waldo! as I came up the camps I met some one on horseback; and I do believe it must be the new man.”

The new man was an Englishman to whom the Boer-woman had hired half the farm.

“Hum!” said Waldo.

“He is quite young,” said Em, “and he has brown hair, and beard curling close to his face, and such dark blue eyes. And, Waldo, page: 283 I was so ashamed! I was just looking back to see, you know, and he happened just to be looking back too, and we looked right into each other's faces; and he got red, and I got so red.”

“Yes,” said Waldo.

“I must go now. Perhaps he has brought us letters from the post from Lyndall. And you know he will have to stay with us till his house is built. I must get his room ready. Good-bye!”

She tripped off again, and Waldo carved on at his post. Doss lay with his nose close to the covered saucer, and smelt that some one had made nice little fat cakes that afternoon. Both were so intent on their occupation, that not till a horse's hoofs beat beside them in the sand did they look up to see a rider drawing in his steed.

He was certainly not the stranger whom Em had described. A dark, somewhat French-looking little man of eight-and-twenty, rather stout, page: 284 with heavy, cloudy eyes and pointed moustaches. His horse was a fiery creature, well caparisoned; a highly-finished saddle-bag hung from the saddle; the man's hands were gloved, and he presented the appearance—an appearance rare on that farm—of a well-dressed gentleman.

In an uncommonly melodious voice he inquired whether he might be allowed to remain there for an hour. Waldo directed him to the farm-house, but the stranger declined. He would merely rest under the trees, and give his horse water. He removed the saddle, and Waldo led the animal away to the dam. When he returned, the stranger had settled himself under the trees, with his back against the saddle. The boy offered him of the cakes. He declined, but took a draught from the jug; and Waldo lay down not far off, and fell to work again. It mattered nothing if cold eyes saw it. It was not his sheep-shearing machine. With material loves, as with human, we go mad once, love out, and page: 285 have done. We never get up the true enthusiasm a second time. This was but a thing he had made, laboured over, loved and liked—nothing more.

The stranger forced himself lower down in the saddle and yawned. It was a drowsy afternoon, and he objected to travel in these out-of-the-world parts. He liked better civilized life, where at every hour of the day a man may look for his glass of wine, and his easy-chair, and paper; where at night he may lock himself into his room with his books and a bottle of brandy, and taste joys mental and physical. The world said of him—the all-knowing, omnipotent world, whom no locks can bar, who has the cat-like propensity of seeing best in the dark—the world said that better than the books he loved the brandy, and better than books or brandy, that which it had been better had he loved less. But for the world he cared nothing; he smiled blandly in its teeth. All life is an aimless dream; if wine page: 286 and philosophy and women keep the dream from becoming a nightmare, so much the better. It is all they are fit for, all they can be used for. There was another side to his life and thought, but of that the world knew nothing and said nothing, as the way of the wise world is.

The stranger looked from beneath his sleepy eyelids at the brown earth that stretched away, beautiful in spite of itself in that June sunshine; looked at the graves, the gables of the farm-house showing over the stone walls of the camps, at the clownish fellow at his feet, and yawned. But he had drunk of the hind's tea, and must say something.

“Your father's place, I presume?” he inquired sleepily.

“No; I am only a servant.”

“Dutch people?”


“And you like the life?”

The boy hesitated.

page: 287

“On days like these.”

“And why on these?”

The boy waited.

“They are very beautiful.”

The stranger looked at him. It seemed that as the fellow's dark eyes looked across the brown earth they kindled with an intense satisfaction; then they looked back at the carving.

What had that creature, so coarse-clad and clownish, to do with the subtle joys of the weather? Himself, white-handed and delicate, he might hear the music with shimmering sunshine and solitude play on the finely-strung chords of nature; but that fellow! Was not the ear in that great body too gross for such delicate mutterings?

Presently he said,

“May I see what you work at?”

The fellow handed his wooden post. It was by no means lovely. The men and birds were almost grotesque in their laboured resemblance page: 288 to nature, and bore signs of patient thought. The stranger turned the thing over on his knee.

“Where did you learn this work?”

“I taught myself.”

“And these zigzag lines represent—”

“A mountain.”

The stranger looked.

“It has some meaning, has it not?”

The boy muttered confusedly,

“Only things.”

The questioner looked down at him—the huge, unwieldy figure, in size a man's, in right of his child-like features and curling hair a child's; and it hurt him—it attracted him and it hurt him. It was something between pity and sympathy.

“How long have you worked at this?”

“Nine months.”

From his pocket the stranger drew his pocket-book, and took something from it. He could page: 289 fasten the post to his horse in some way, and throw it away in the sand at safe distance.

“Will you take this for your carving?”

The boy glanced at the five-pound note and shook his head.

“No; I cannot.”

“You think it is worth more?” asked the stranger with a little sneer.

He pointed with his thumb to a grave.

“No; it is for him.”

“And who is there?” asked the stranger.

“My father.”

The man silently returned the note to his pocket-book, and gave the carving to the boy; and, drawing his hat over his eyes, composed himself to sleep. Not being able to do so, after a while he glanced over the fellow's shoulder to watch him work. The boy carved letters into the back.

“If,” said the stranger, with his melodious voice, rich with a sweetness that never shewed page: 290 itself in the clouded eyes, “if for such a purpose, why write that upon it?”

The boy glanced round at him, but made no answer. He had almost forgotten his presence.

“You surely believe,” said the stranger, “that some day, sooner or later, these graves will open, and those Boer-uncles with their wives walk about here in the red sand, with the very fleshly legs with which they went to sleep? You believe it, do you not? Then why say, ‘He sleeps forever?’ You believe he will stand up again?”

“Do you?” asked the boy, lifting for an instant his heavy eyes to the stranger's face.

Half taken aback, the stranger laughed. It was as though a curious little tadpole which he held under his glass should suddenly lift its tail and begin to ask questions.

“I?—no.” He laughed his short thick laugh. “I am a man who believes nothing, hopes page: 291 nothing, fears nothing, feels nothing, trusts nothing. I am beyond the pale of humanity; no criterion of what you should be who live here among your birds and bushes.”

The next moment the stranger was surprised by a sudden movement on the part of the fellow, which brought him close to the stranger's feet. Soon after he raised his carving and laid it across the man's knee.

“Yes, I will tell you,” he muttered; “I will tell you all about it.”

He put his finger on the grotesque little mannikin at the bottom (Ah! that man who believed nothing, hoped nothing, felt nothing; how he loved him!), and, with eager finger the fellow moved upward, explaining over fantastic figures and mountains, to the crowning bird from whose wing dropped a feather. At the end he spoke with broken breath—short words, like one who utters things of mighty import.

The stranger watched more the face than the page: 292 carving; and there was now and then a show of white teeth beneath the moustaches as he listened.

“I think,” he said blandly, when the boy had done, “that I partly understand you. It is something after this fashion, is it not?” (He smiled.) “In certain valleys there was a hunter.” (He touched the grotesque little figure at the bottom.) “Day by day he went to hunt for wild-fowl in the woods; and it chanced that once he stood on the shores of a large lake. While he stood waiting in the rushes for the coming of the birds, a great shadow fell on him, and in the water he saw a reflection. He looked up to the sky; but the thing was gone. Then a burning desire came over him to see once again that reflection in the water, and all day he watched and waited; but night came and it had not returned. Then he went home with his empty bag, moody and silent. His comrades came questioning about page: 293 him to know the reason, but he answered them nothing; he sat alone and brooded. Then his friend came to him, and to him he spoke.

“‘I have seen to-day,’ he said, ‘that which I never saw before—a vast white bird, with silver wings outstretched, sailing in the everlasting blue. And now it is as though a great fire burnt within my breast. It was but a sheen, a shimmer, a reflection in the water; but now I desire nothing more on earth than to hold her.’

His friend laughed.

‘It was but a beam playing on the water, or the shadow of your own head. To-morrow you will forget her,’ he said.

But to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow the hunter walked alone. He sought in the forest and in the woods, by the lakes and among the rushes, but he could not find her. He shot no more wild fowl; what were they to him?

‘What ails him?’ said his comrades.

‘He is mad,’ said one.

page: 294

‘No; but he is worse,’ said another; ‘he would see that which none of us have seen, and make himself a wonder.’

‘Come, let us forswear his company,’ said all.

So the hunter walked alone.

One night, as he wandered in the shade, very heart-sore and weeping, an old man stood before him, grander and taller than the sons of men.

‘Who are you?’ asked the hunter.

‘I am Wisdom,’ answered the old man; ‘but some men call me Knowledge. All my life I have grown in these valleys; but no man sees me till he has sorrowed much. The eyes must be washed with tears that are to behold me; and, according as a man has suffered, I speak.’

And the hunter cried—

‘Oh, you who have lived here so long, tell me, what is that great wild bird I have seen sailing in the blue? They would have me believe she is a dream; the shadow of my own head.’

page: 295

The old man smiled.

‘Her name is Truth. He who has once seen her never rests again. Till death he desires her.’

And the hunter cried—

‘Oh, tell me where I may find her.’

But the old man said,

‘You have not suffered enough,’ and went.

Then the hunter took from his breast the shuttle of Imagination, and wound on it the thread of his Wishes; and all night he sat and wove a net.

In the morning he spread the golden net upon the ground, and into it he threw a few grains of credulity, which his father had left him, and which he kept in his breast pocket. They were like white puff-balls, and when you trod on them a brown dust flew out. Then he sat by to see what would happen. The first that came into the net was a snow-white bird, with dove's page: 296 eyes, and he sang a beautiful song—‘A human-God! a human-God! a human-God!’ it sang. The second that came was black and mystical, with dark, lovely eyes, that looked into the depths of your soul, and he sang only this—‘Immortality!’

And the hunter took them both in his arms, for he said—

‘They are surely of the beautiful family of Truth.’

Then came another, green and gold, who sang in a shrill voice, like one crying in the marketplace,—‘Reward after Death! Reward after Death!’

And he said—

‘You are not so fair; but you are fair too,’ and he took it.

And others came, brightly coloured, singing pleasant songs, till all the grains were finished. And the hunter gathered all his birds together, and built a strong iron cage called a new creed, and put all his birds in it.

page: 297

Then the people came about dancing and singing.

‘Oh, happy hunter!’ they cried. ‘Oh, wonderful man! Oh, delightful birds! Oh, lovely songs!’

No one asked where the birds had come from, nor how they had been caught; but they danced and sang before them. And the hunter too was glad, for he said—

‘Surely Truth is among them. In time she will moult her feathers, and I shall see her snow-white form.’

But the time passed, and the people sang and danced; but the hunter's heart grew heavy. He crept alone, as of old, to weep; the terrible desire had awakened again in his breast. One day, as he sat alone weeping, it chanced that Wisdom met him. He told the old man what he had done.

And Wisdom smiled sadly.

‘Many men,’ he said, ‘have spread that net page: 298 for Truth; but they have never found her. On the grains of credulity she will not feed; in the net of wishes her feet cannot be held; in the air of these valleys she will not breathe. The birds you have caught are of the brood of Lies. Lovely and beautiful, but still lies; Truth knows them not.’

And the hunter cried out in bitterness—

‘And must I then sit still, to be devoured of this great burning?’

And the old man said,

‘Listen, and in that you have suffered much and wept much, I will tell you what I know. He who sets out to search for Truth must leave these valleys of superstition for ever, taking with him not one shred that has belonged to them. Alone he must wander down into the Land of Absolute Negation and Denial; he must abide there; he must resist temptation; when the light breaks he must arise and follow it into the country of dry sunshine. The mountains of page: 299 stern reality will rise before him; he must climb them: beyond them lies Truth.’

‘And he will hold her fast! he will hold her in his hands!’ the hunter cried.

Wisdom shook his head.

‘He will never see her, never hold her. The time is not yet.’

‘Then there is no hope?’ cried the hunter.

‘There is this,’ said Wisdom: ‘Some men have climbed on those mountains; circle above circle of bare rock they have scaled; and, wandering there, in those high regions, some have chanced to pick up on the ground, one white, silver feather, dropped from the wing of Truth. And it shall come to pass,’ said the old man, raising himself prophetically and pointing with his finger to the sky, ‘it shall come to pass, that when enough of those silver feathers shall have been gathered by the hands of men, and shall have been woven into a cord, and the cord into a net, that in that page: 300 net Truth may be captured. Nothing but Truth can hold Truth.

The hunter arose. ‘I will go,’ he said.

But Wisdom detained him.

‘Mark you well—who leaves these valleys never returns to them. Though he should weep tears of blood seven days and nights upon the confines, he can never put his foot across them. Left—they are left forever. Upon the road which you would travel there is no reward offered. Who goes, goes freely—for the great love that is in him. The work is his reward.’

‘I go,’ said the hunter; ‘but upon the mountains, tell me, which path shall I take?’

‘I am the child of The-Accumulated-Knowledge-of-Ages,’ said the man; ‘I can walk only where many men have trodden. On these mountains few feet have passed; each man strikes out a path for himself. He goes at his own peril: my voice he hears no more. I may follow after him, but cannot go before him.’

page: 301

Then Knowledge vanished.

And the hunter turned. He went to his cage, and with his hands broke down the bars, and the jagged iron tore his flesh. It is sometimes easier to build than to break.

One by one he took his plumed birds and let them fly. But when he came to his dark-plumed bird he held it, and looked into its beautiful eyes, and the bird uttered its low, deep cry—‘Immortality!’

And he said quickly, ‘I cannot part with it. It is not heavy; it eats no food. I will hide it in my breast; I will take it with me.’ And he buried it there and covered it over with his cloak.

But the thing he had hidden grew heavier, heavier, heavier—till it lay on his breast like lead. He could not move with it. Then again he took it out and looked at it.

‘Oh, my beautiful! my heart's own!’ he cried, ‘may I not keep you?’

page: 302

He opened his hands sadly.

‘Go!’ he said. ‘It may happen that in Truth's song one note is like yours; but I shall never hear it.’

Sadly he opened his hand, and the bird flew from him forever.

Then from the shuttle of imagination he took the thread of his wishes, and threw it on the ground; and the empty shuttle he put into his breast, for the thread was made in those valleys, but the shuttle came from an unknown country. He turned to go, but now the people came about him, howling.

‘Fool, hound, demented lunatic!’ they cried. ‘How dared you break your cage and let the birds fly?’

The hunter spoke; but they would not hear him.

‘Truth! who is she? Can you eat her? can you drink her? who has ever seen her? Your birds were real: all could hear them sing! page: 303 Oh, fool! vile reptile! atheist!’ they cried, ‘you pollute the air.’

‘Come, let us take up stones and stone him,’ cried some.

‘What affair is it of ours?’ said others. ‘Let the idiot go,’ and went away. But the rest gathered up stones and mud and threw at him. At last, when he was bruised and cut, the hunter crept away into the woods. And it was evening about him.”

At every word the stranger spoke the fellow's eyes flashed back on him—yes, and yes, and yes! The stranger smiled. It was almost worth the trouble of exerting oneself, even on a lazy afternoon, to win those passionate flashes, more thirsty and desiring than the love-glances of a woman.

“He wandered on and on,” said the stranger, “and the shade grew deeper. He was on the borders now of the land where it is always night. Then he stepped into it, and there was no light there. With his hands he groped; page: 304 but each branch as he touched it broke off, and the earth was covered with cinders. At every step his foot sank in, and a fine cloud of impalpable ashes flew up into his face; and it was dark. So he sat down upon a stone and buried his face in his hands, to wait in the Land of Negation and Denial till the light came.

And it was night in his heart also.

Then from the marshes to his right and left cold mists arose and closed about him. A fine, imperceptible rain fell in the dark, and great drops gathered on his hair and clothes. His heart beat slowly, and a numbness crept through all his limbs. Then, looking up, two merry wisp lights came dancing. He lifted his head to look at them. Nearer, nearer they came. So warm, so bright, they danced like stars of fire. They stood before him at last. From the centre of the radiating flame in one looked out a woman's face, laughing, dimpled, with streaming yellow hair. In the centre of the other were merry page: 305 laughing ripples, like the bubbles on a glass of wine. They danced before him.

‘Who are you,’ asked the hunter, ‘who alone come to me in my solitude and darkness?’

‘We are the twins Sensuality,’ they cried. ‘Our father's name is Human-Nature, and our mother's name is Excess. We are as old as the hills and rivers, as old as the first man; but we never die,’ they laughed.

‘Oh, let me wrap my arms about you!’ cried the first; ‘they are soft and warm. Your heart is frozen now, but I will make it beat. Oh, come to me!’

‘I will pour my hot life into you,’ said the second; ‘your brain is numb, and your limbs are dead now; but they shall live with a fierce free life. Oh, let me pour it in!’

‘Oh, follow us,’ they cried, ‘and live with us. Nobler hearts than yours have sat here in this darkness to wait, and they have come to us and we to them; and they have never left page: 306 us, never. All else is a delusion, but we are real, we are real. Truth is a shadow; the valleys of superstition are a farce: the earth is of ashes, the trees all rotten; but we—feel us—we live! You cannot doubt us. Feel us how warm we are! Oh, come to us! Oh, live with us!’

Nearer and nearer round his head they hovered, and the cold drops melted on his forehead. The bright light shot into his eyes, dazzling him, and the frozen blood began to run. And he said—

‘Yes, why should I die here in this awful darkness? They are warm, they are warm!’ and he stretched out his hands to take them.

Then in a moment there arose before him the image of the thing he had loved, and his hand dropped to his side.

‘Oh, come to us!’ they cried.

But he buried his face.

‘You dazzle my eyes,’ he cried, ‘you make my heart warm; but you cannot give me what page: 307 I desire. I will wait here—wait till I die; but I will not follow you. Go!’

He covered his face with his hands and would not listen; and when he looked up again they were two twinkling stars, that vanished in the distance.

And the long, long night rolled on.

All who leave the valley of superstition pass through that dark land; but some go through it in a few days, some linger there for months, some for years, and some die there.

At last for the hunter a faint light played along the horizon, and he rose to follow it.’

The boy had crept closer; his hot breath almost touched the stranger's hand; a mystic wonder filled his eyes.

“He reached that light at last, and stepped into the broad sunshine,’ said the stranger. “Then before him rose the almighty mountains of Dry-facts and Realities. The clear sunshine played on them, and the tops were lost in page: 308 the clouds. At the foot many paths ran up. An exultant cry burst from the hunter. He chose the straightest and began to climb; and the rocks and ridges resounded with his song. They had exaggerated; after all, it was not so high, nor was the road so steep! A few days, a few weeks, a few months at most, and then the top! Not one feather only would he pick up; he would gather all that other men had found—weave the net—capture Truth—hold her fast—touch her with his hands—clasp her!

He laughed in the merry sunshine, and sang loud. Victory was very near. Nevertheless, after a while the path grew steeper. He needed all his breath for climbing, and the singing died away. On the right and left rose huge rocks, devoid of lichen or moss, and in the lava-like earth chasms yawned. Here and there he saw a sheen of white bones. Now too the path began to grow less and page: 309 less marked; then it became a mere trace, with a footmark here and there; then it ceased altogether. He sang no more, but struck forth a path for himself, until it reached a mighty wall of rock, smooth and without break, stretching as far as the eye could see. ‘I will rear a stair against it; and, once this wall climbed, I shall be almost there,’ he said bravely; and set to work. With his shuttle of imagination he dug out stones; but half of them would not fit, and sometimes half a month's work would roll down because those below were ill chosen. But the hunter worked on, saying always to himself, ‘Once this wall climbed, I shall be almost there. This great work ended!’

At last he came out upon the top, and he looked about him. Far below rolled the white mist over the valleys of superstition, and above towered the mountains. They had seemed low before; they were of an immeasurable height now, from crown to foundation surrounded by page: 310 walls of rock, that rose tier above tier in mighty circles. Upon them played the eternal sunshine. He uttered a wild cry. When he rose from the earth on which he had fallen, his face was white. In absolute silence he walked on. He was very silent now. In those high regions the rarefied air is hard to breathe by those born in the valleys; every breath he drew hurt him, and the blood oozed out from the tips of his fingers. Before the next wall of rock he began to work. The height of this seemed infinite, and he said nothing. The sound of his tool rang night and day upon the iron rocks into which he cut steps. Times and times, and again times, passed over him, yet he worked on; but the wall towered up above him to heaven. Sometimes he prayed that a little moss or lichen might spring up on those bare walls to be a companion to him; but it never came.

And the years rolled on; he counted them page: 311 by the steps he had cut—a few for a year—only a few. He sang no more; he said no more, ‘I will do this, or that’—he only worked. And at night, when the twilight settled down, there looked out at him from the holes and crevices in the rocks strange wild faces.

‘Stop your work, you lonely man, and speak to us,’ they cried.

‘My salvation is in work. If I should stop but for one moment you would creep down upon me,’ he replied. And they put out their long necks further.

‘Look down into the crevice at your feet,’ they said. ‘See what lie there—white bones! As brave and strong a man as you climbed to these rocks.’ And he looked up. He saw there was no use; he would never hold Truth, never see her, never find her. So he lay down here, for he was very tired. He went to sleep for ever. He put himself to sleep. Sleep is very tranquil. You are not lonely when you page: 312 are asleep, neither do your hands ache, nor your heart. And the hunter laughed between his teeth.’ And the hunter laughed between his teeth.

‘Have I torn from my heart all that was dearest; have I wandered alone in the land of night; have I resisted temptation; have I dwelt where the voice of my kind is never heard, and laboured alone, to lie down and be food for you, ye harpies?’

He laughed fiercely; and the Echoes of Despair slunk away, for the laugh of a brave, strong heart is as a death blow to them.

Nevertheless they crept out again and looked at him.

‘Do you know that your hair is white?’ they said, ‘that your hands begin to tremble like a child's? Do you see that the point of your shuttle is gone?—it is cracked already. If you should ever climb this stair,’ they said, ‘it will be your last. You will never climb another.’

page: 313

And he answered, ‘I know it!’ and worked on.

The old, thin hands cut the stones ill and jaggedly, for the fingers were stiff and bent. The beauty and the strength of the man was gone.

At last, an old, wizened, shrunken face looked out above the rocks. It saw the eternal mountains rise with walls to the white clouds; but its work was done.

The old hunter folded his tired hands and lay down by the precipice where he had worked away his life. It was the sleeping time at last. Below him over the valleys rolled the thick white mist. Once it broke; and through the gap the dying eyes looked down on the trees and fields of their childhood. From afar seemed borne to him the cry of his own wild birds, and he heard the noise of people singing as they danced. And he thought he heard among them the voices of his old comrades; and he saw far off the sunlight shine on his early home. And great tears gathered in the hunter's eyes.

page: 314

‘Ah! they who die there do not die alone,’ he cried.

Then the mists rolled together again; and he turned his eyes away.

‘I have sought,’ he said, ‘for long years I have laboured; but I have not found her. I have not rested, I have not repined, and I have not seen her; now my strength is gone. Where I lie down worn out other men will stand, young and fresh. By the steps that I have cut they will climb; by the stairs that I have built they will mount. They will never know the name of the man who made them. At the clumsy work they will laugh; when the stones roll they will curse me. But they will mount, and on my work; they will climb, and by my stair! They will find her, and through me! And no man liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.’

The tears rolled from beneath the shrivelled eyelids. If Truth had appeared above him page: 315 in the clouds now he could not have seen her.

‘My soul hears their glad step coming,’ he said; ‘and they shall mount! they shall mount!’ He raised his shrivelled hand to his eyes.

Then slowly from the white sky above, through the still air, came something falling, falling, falling. Softly it fluttered down, and dropped on to the breast of the dying man. He felt it with his hands. It was a feather. He died holding it.”

The boy had shaded his eyes with his hand. On the wood of the carving great drops fell. The stranger must have laughed outright, or remained silent and somewhat solemn.

“How did you know it?” the boy whispered at last. “It is not written there—not on that wood. How did you know it?”

“Certainly,” said the stranger, “the whole of the story is not written here, but it is suggested. And the attribute of all true art, the highest and page: 316 the lowest, is this—that it says more than it says, and takes you away from itself. It is a little door that opens into an infinite hall where you may find what you please. Men, thinking to detract, say, ‘People read more in this or that work of genius than was ever written in it,’ not perceiving that they pay the highest compliment. If we pick up the finger and nail of a real man, we can decipher a whole story—could almost reconstruct the creature again, from head to foot. But half the body of a Mumboo-jumbow idol leaves us utterly in the dark as to what the rest was like. We see what we see, but nothing more. There is nothing so universally intelligible as truth. It has a thousand meanings, and suggests a thousand more, all true. Though a man should carve it into matter with the least possible manipulative skill, it will yet find interpreters. It is the soul that looks out with burning eyes through the most gross fleshly filament. It is that which is universal. Whosoever should page: 317 portray truly the life and death of a little flower,—its birth, sucking in of nourishment, waxing, reproduction of its kind, withering and vanishing,—would have shaped a symbol of all existence. All true facts of nature or the mind are related. Your little carving represents a mental fact as it really is, therefore fifty different true stories might be read from it. What your work wants is not truth, but beauty of external form, the other half of art. Skill may come in time, but you will have to work hard. The love of beauty and the desire for it must be born in a man; the skill to reproduce it he must make.”

Having delivered himself of these paradoxes, for the purpose of observing their effect upon his listener, the stranger broke off the end of a cigar and lit it.

“All my life I have longed to see you,” the boy said.

He lifted the heavy wood from the stranger's knee and drew yet nearer him. In the dog-like page: 318 manner of his drawing near there was something superbly ridiculous, unless one chanced to view it in another light. Presently the stranger said, whiffing, “Do something for me.”

The boy started up.

“No; stay where you are. I don't want you to go anywhere; I want you to talk to me. Tell me what you have been doing all your life.”

The boy slunk down again. Would that the man had asked him to root up bushes with his hands for his horse to feed on; or to run to the far end of the plain for the fossils that lay there; or to gather the flowers that grew on the far low hills; he would have run and been back quickly—but now!

“I have never done anything,” he said.

“Then tell me of that nothing. I like to know what other folks have been doing whose word I can believe. It is interesting. What was the first thing you ever wanted very much?”

The boy waited to remember, then began page: 319 hesitatingly, but soon the words flowed. In the smallest past we find an inexhaustible mine when once we begin to dig at it. We stare ourselves at the things we draw forth when for another we disturb the days of old.

A confused, disordered story it was—the little made large and the large small, and nothing showing its inward meaning. It is not till the past has receded many steps that before the clearest eyes it falls into co-ordinate pictures. It is not till the I we tell of has ceased to exist, that it takes its place among other objective realities, and finds its true niche in the picture. The present and the near past is a confusion, whose meaning flashes on us as it slinks away into the distance.

The stranger lit one cigar from the end of another, and puffed and listened, with half-closed eyes.

“I will remember more to tell you if you like,” said the boy.

page: 320

He spoke with that extreme gravity common to all very young things who feel deeply. It is not till twenty that we learn to be in deadly earnest and to laugh. The stranger nodded, while the fellow sought for something more to relate. He would tell all to this man of his—all that he knew, all that he had felt, his inmost sorest thought. Suddenly the stranger turned upon him.

“Boy,” he said, “you are happy to be here.”

Waldo looked at him. Was his delightful one ridiculing him? Here, with this brown earth and these low hills! while the rare wonderful world lay all beyond them! Fortunate to be here!

The stranger read his glance.

“Yes,” he said; “here with the karroo-bushes and red sand. You wonder what I mean? To all who have been born in the old faith there comes a time of danger, when the old slips from us, and we have not yet planted our feet on the new; when the voice from Sinai page: 321 thunders no more, and the still small voice of reason is not yet heard. We have proved the religion our mothers fed us on to be a delusion; in our bewilderment we see no rule by which to guide our steps day by day; and yet every day we must step somewhere. We have never once been taught by word or act to distinguish between religion and the moral laws on which it has artfully fastened itself, and from which it has sucked its vitality. When we have dragged down the weeds and creepers that covered the solid wall and have found them to be rotten wood, we imagine the wall itself to be rotten wood too. We find it is solid and standing only when we fall headlong against it. We have been taught that all right and wrong originate in the will of an irresponsible being. It is some time before we see how the inexorable ‘Thou shalt and shalt not,’ are carved into the nature of things. This is the time of danger.

“In the end experience will inevitably teach page: 322 us that the laws for a wise and noble life have a foundation infinitely deeper than the fiat of any being, God or man, even in the groundwork of human nature. She will teach us that whoso sheddeth man's blood, though by man his blood be not shed, though no man avenge and no hell await; yet every drop shall blister on his soul and eat in the name of the dead. She will teach that whoso takes a love not lawfully his own, gathers a flower with a poison on its petals; that whoso revenges, strikes with a sword that has two edges—one for his adversary,—one for himself; that who lives to himself is dead, though the ground is not yet on him; that who wrongs another clouds his own sun; and that who sins in secret stands accursed and condemned before the one Judge who deals eternal justice—his own all-knowing self.

“Experience will teach us this, and reason will show us why it must be so; but at first the world swings before our eyes, and no voice cries page: 323 out, ‘This is the way, walk ye in it!’ Boy, you are happy to be here! When the suspense fills you with pain you build stone walls and dig earth for relief. Others have stood where you stand to-day, and have felt as you feel; and another relief has been offered them, and they have taken it.

“When the day has come when they have seen the path in which they might walk, they have not the strength to follow it. Habits have fastened on them from which nothing but death can free them; which cling closer than his sacerdotal sanctimony to a priest; which feed on the intellect like a worm sapping energy, hope, creative power, resolution, all that makes a man higher than a beast—leaving only the power to yearn, to regret, and to sink lower in the abyss.

“Boy,” he said, and the listener was not more unsmiling now than the speaker, “you are happy to be here! Stay where you are. If you ever pray, let it be only the one old prayer— page: 324 ‘Lead us not into temptation.’ Live on here quietly. The time may yet come when you will be that which other men have hoped to be and never will be now.”

The stranger rose, shook the dust from his sleeve, and half-ashamed of his earnestness, looked across the bushes for his horse.

“We should have been on our way already,” he said. “We shall have a long ride in the dark to-night.”

Waldo hastened to fetch the animal; but he returned leading it slowly. The sooner it came the sooner would its rider be gone.

The stranger was opening his saddle-bag, in which were a bright French novel and an old brown volume. He took the last and held it out to the boy.

“It may be of some help to you. It was a gospel to me when I first fell on it. You must not expect too much,” he said; “but it may give you a centre round which to organize page: 325 your confused ideas. We of this generation are not destined to eat and be satisfied as our fathers were; but to search, and be hungry.”

He smiled his automaton smile, and rebuttoned the bag. Waldo thrust the book into his breast, and while he saddled the horse the stranger made inquiries as to the nature of the road and the distance to the next farm.

When the bags were fixed Waldo took up his wooden post and began to fasten it on to the saddle, tying it with the little blue cotton handkerchief from his neck. The stranger looked on in silence. When it was done the boy held the stirrup for him to mount.

“What is your name?” he inquired, ungloving his right hand when he was in the saddle.

The boy replied.

“Well, I trust we shall meet again some day, sooner or later.”

He shook hands with the ungloved hand; then drew on the glove, touched his horse, and page: 326 rode slowly away. The boy stood to watch him.

Once when the stranger had gone half across the plain he looked back.

“Poor devil,” he said, smiling and stroking his moustache. Then he looked to see if the little blue handkerchief were still safely knotted. “Poor devil!”

He smiled, and then he sighed wearily, very wearily.

And Waldo waited till the moving speck had disappeared on the horizon; then he stooped and kissed passionately a hoof-mark in the sand. Then he called his young birds together, and put his book under his arm, and walked home along the stone wall. There was a rare beauty to him in the sunshine that evening.

no next