Vrouw Grobelaar And Her Leading Cases - Unto The Third Generation

Author: Gibbon Perceval

The Vrouw Grobelaar, you must know, is a lady of excellent standing, as much by reason of family connections (for she was a Viljoen of the older stock herself, and buried in her time three husbands of estimable parentage) as of her wealth. Her farms extended from the Ringkop on the one side to the Holgaatspruit on the other, which is more than a day's ride; and her stock appears to be of that ideal species which does not take rinderpest. Her Kafirs were born on the place, and will surely die there, for though the old lady is firmly convinced that she rules them with a rod of iron, the truth is she spoils them atrociously; and were it not that there is an excellent headman to her kraals, the niggers would soon grow pot-bellied in idleness.

The Vrouw Grobelaar is a lady who commands respect. Her face is a portentous mask of solemnity, and her figure is spacious beyond the average of Dutch ladies, so that certain chairs are tacitly conceded her as a monopoly. The good Vrouw does not read or write, and having never found a need in herself for these arts, is the least thing impatient of those who practice them. The Psalms, however, she appears to know by heart; also other portions of the Bible; and is capable of spitting Scripture at you on the smallest provocation. Indeed she bubbles with morality, and a mention of "the accursed thing" (which would appear to be a genus and not a species, so many articles of human commerce does it embrace) will set her effervescing with mingled blame and exhortation. But if punishment should come in question, as when a Kafir waylaid and slew a chicken of hers, she displays so prolific an invention in excuses, so generous a partiality for mercy, that not the most irate induna that ever laid down a law of his own could find a pretext for using the stick.

She lives in her homestead with some half-dozen of nieces, a nephew or two, and a litter of grandchildren, who know the old lady to the core, cozen and blarney her as they please, and love her with a perfect unanimity. I think she sometimes blames herself for her tyrannical usage of these innocents, who nevertheless thrive remarkably on it. You can hardly get on your horse at the door without maiming an infant, and you can't throw a stone in any direction without killing a marriageable damsel. They pervade the old place like an atmosphere; the kraals ring with their voices, and the Kafirs spend lives of mingled misery and delight at their irresponsible hands.

I do not think I need particularize in the matter of these youngsters, save as regards Katje. Katje refuses to be ignored, and she was no more to be overlooked than a tin- tack in the sole of your foot. She was the only child of Vrouw Grobelaar's youngest brother, Barend Viljoen, who died while lion-hunting in the Fever Country. At the time I am thinking of Katje might have been eighteen. She was like a poppy among the stubble, so delicate in her bodily fabric, and yet so opulent in shape and coloring. She was the nicest child that ever gave a kiss for the asking (you could kiss her as soon as look at her), but she was also the very devil to deal with if she saw fit to take a distaste of you. I saw her once smack a fathom of able- bodied youth on both sides of the head with a lusty vigor that constrained the sufferer to howl. And I have seen her come to meet a man—well, me, with the readiest lips and the friendliest hand in the world. Oh, Katje was like a blotch of color in one's life; something vivid, to throw the days into relief.

A stranger to the household might have put down Katje's behavior towards the Vrouw Grobelaar as damnable, no less; and in the early days of my acquaintance with the family I was somewhat tempted to this opinion myself. For she not only flouted the old lady to her face, but would upon occasion disregard her utterly, and do it all with what I can only call a swagger that seemed to demand a local application of drastic measures. But Katje knew her victim, if such a word can be applied to the Vrouw Grobelaar, and never prodded her save on her armor. For instance, to say the Kafirs were overdriven and starved was nothing if not flattery—to say they were spoiled and coddled would have been mere brutality.

With it all, the Vrouw Grobelaar went her placid way, like an elephant over egg-shells. Her household did her one service, at least, in return for their maintenance, and that was to provide the old lady with an audience. It was in no sense an unwilling service, for her imagination ran to the gruesome, and she never planted a precept but she drove it home with a case in point. As a result night was often shattered by a yell from some sleeper whose dreams had trespassed on devilish domains. The Vrouw Grobelaar believed most entirely in Kafir magic, in witchcraft and second sight, in ghosts and infernal possession, in destiny, and in a very personal arch-fiend who presided over a material hell when not abroad in the world on the war-path. Besides, she had stores of tales from the lives of neighbors and acquaintances: often horrible enough, for the Boers are a lonely folk and God's finger writes large in their lives.

I almost think I can see it now—the low Dutch kitchen with its plank ceiling, the old lady in her chair, with an illustrative forefinger uplifted to punctuate the periods of her tale, the embers, white and red, glowing on the hearth, and the intent shadow-pitted faces of the hearers, agape for horrors.

There was a tale I heard her tell to Katje, when that damsel had seen fit to observe, apropos of disobedience in general, that her grandfather's character had nothing to do with hers. The tale was in plaintive Dutch, the language that makes or breaks a story-teller, for you must hang your point on the gutturals or you miss it altogether.

"Look at my husband's uncle," said the old lady. "A sinful man, forever swearing and cursing, and drinking. His farm was the worst in the district; the very Kafirs were ashamed of it when they went to visit the kraals. But Voss (that was the name of my husband's uncle) cared nothing so long as there was a horse to ride into the dorp on and some money to buy whiskey with. And he drank so much and carried on so wickedly that his wife died and his girls married poor men and never went to stay with their father. So at last he lived in the house, with only his son to help him from being all alone.

"This son was Barend Voss, a great hulking fellow, with the strength of a trek-ox, and never a word of good or bad to throw away on any one. But his face was the face of a violent man. He had blue eyes with no pleasantness about them, but a sort of glitter, as though there were live coals in his brain. He did not drink like his father; and these two would sit together in the evenings, the one bleared and stupid with liquor, and the other watching him in silence across the table.

"They spoke seldom to one another; and it would often happen that the father would speak to the son and get not a word of answer—only that lowering ugly stare that had grown to be a way with the boy.

"I think those two men must have grown to hate each other in the evenings as they sat together; the younger one despising and loathing his father, and the father hating his son for so doing. I have often wondered how they never came to blows—before they did, that is.

"One morning old Voss rode off to the dorp, and Barend watched him from the door till he went out of sight in the kloof. All the day he was away, and when he came back again it was late in the night. Barend was sitting in his usual place at the table scowling over his folded arms.

"Old Voss had not ridden off his liquor; and he staggered into the house singing a dirty English song. He had a bottle in his hands, and banged it down on the table in front of his son.

"'Now, old sheep's head,' he shouted, 'have a drink and drop those airs of yours.'

"Barend sat where he was, and said not a word—just watched the other.

"'Come on,' shouted old Voss; 'I'm not going to drink alone. If you won't take it pleasantly I'll make you take it, and be damned to you!'

"Barend sat still, scowling always. I dare say a sober man would have seen something in his eyes and let be. But old Voss was blind to his danger, and shouted on.

"The younger man kept his horrid silence, and never moved, till the father was goaded to a drunken rage.

"'If you won't drink,' he screamed, 'take that,' and he flung a full cupful of the spirit right in the young man's face.

"Then everything was in the fire. The two men fought in the room like beasts, oversetting table and lamp, and stamping into the fire on the hearth. Barend was mad with a passion of long nursing, and hewed with his great fists till the old man fell heavily to the ground, and lay moaning.

"Barend stood over him, glowering. 'Swine!' he said to his father; 'swine and brute! get you out of this house to the veld. You are no father of mine.'

"But the old man was much hurt, and lay where he had fallen, groaning as though he had not heard.

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