Vrouw Grobelaar - The Dream-face

Author: Gibbon Perceval

"I wish," said Katje, looking up from her book—"I wish a man would come and make me marry him."

The Vrouw Grobelaar wobbled where she sat with stupefaction.

"Yes," continued Katje, musingly casting her eyes to the rafters, "I wish a man would just take me by the hand—so— and not listen to anything I said, nor let me go however I should struggle, and carry me off on the peak of his saddle and marry me. I think I would be willing to die for a man who could do that."

The Vrouw Grobelaar found her voice at last. "Katje," she said with deep-toned emphasis, "you are talking wickedness, just wickedness. Do you think I would let a man—any man, or perhaps an Englishman—carry you off like a strayed ewe?"

"The sort of man I'm thinking of," replied the maiden, "wouldn't ask you for permission. He'd simply pick me up, and away he'd go."

At times, and in certain matters, Vrouw Grobelaar would display a ready acumen.

"Tell me, Katje," she said now, "who is this man?"

Then Katje dropped her book and, sitting upright with an unimpeachable surprise, stared at the old lady.

"I'm not thinking of any man," she remarked calmly. "I was just wishing there was a man who would have the pluck to do it."

The Vrouw Grobelaar shook her head. "Good Burghers don't carry girls away," she said. "They come and drink coffee, and sit with them, and talk about the sheep."

"And behave as if they had never worn boots before, and didn't know what to do with their hands," added the maiden. "Aunt, am I a girl to marry a man who upsets three cups of coffee in half an hour and borrows a handkerchief to wipe his knees?"

Now there could be no shadow of doubt that this was an open-breasted cut at young Fanie van Tromp, whose affection for Katje was a matter of talk on the farms, and whose overtures that young lady had consistently sterilized with ridicule.

The Vrouw Grobelaar was void of delicacy. "Fanie is a good lad," she said, "and when his father dies he will have a very large property."

"It'll console him for not adding me to his live stock," retorted Katje.

"He is handsome, too," continued the old lady. "His beard is as black as—"

"A carrion-crow," added Katje promptly.

"Quite," agreed the Vrouw Grobelaar, with a perfect unconsciousness of the unsavoriness of the suggestion.

"And he walks like a duck with sore feet," went on Katje. "He is as graceful as a trek-ox, and his conversational talents are those of a donkey in long grass."

"All that is a young girl's nonsense," observed the old lady. "I was like that once myself. But when one grows a little older and fatter, and there is less about one to take a man's eye,—a fickle thing, Katje, a fickle thing,— one looks for more in a husband than a light foot and a smart figure."

Katje was a trifle abashed, for all the daughters of her house, were they never so slender, grew tubby in their twenties.

"Besides," continued the worthy Vrouw, "your talk is chaff from a mill. It must come out to leave the meal clean. Perhaps, after all, Fanie is the man to carry you off. I think you would not take so much trouble to worry him if you thought nothing of him."

The Vrouw Grobelaar had never heard of Beatrice and her
Benedick, but she had a notion of the principle.

"I hate him," cried Katje with singular violence.

"I think not," replied the old lady. "Sometimes the thing we want is at our elbows, and we cannot grasp it because we reach too far. Did I ever tell you how Stoffel Struben nearly went mad for love of his wife?"

"No," said Katje, unwillingly interested. "He was something of a fool to begin with," commenced the Vrouw Grobelaar. "He chose his wife for a certain quality of gentleness she had, and though I will not deny she made him a good wife and a patient, still gentleness will not boil a pot. He was a fine fellow to look at; big and upstanding, with plenty of blood in him, and a grand mat of black hair on top. He moved like a buck; so ready on his feet and so lively in all his movements. He might have carried you off, Katje, and done you no good in the end.

"He was happy with his pretty wife for a while, and might have been happy all his life and died blessedly had he but been able to keep from conjuring up faces in his mind and falling in love with them. Greta, his wife, had hair like golden wheat, so smooth and rippled with light; and no sooner had he stroked his fill of it than he conceived nut- brown to be the most lovely color of woman's hair. Her eyes were blue, and for half a year he loved them; then hazel seemed to him a better sort. I said he was a fool, didn't I?

"So his marriage to Greta became a chain instead of a union, while the poor lass fretted her heart out over his dark looks and short answers. He was shallow, Katje, shallow; he had the mere capacity for love, but it was a short way to the bottom of it. You will see by and by that the men who deserve least always want most. Stoffel had no right to a woman at all; when he had one, and she a good girl, he let his eyes rove for others.

"So he went about his farm with his mind straying and his heart abroad. If you spoke to him, he paused awhile, and then looked at you with a start as though freshly waked. He saw nothing as he went, neither his wife with the questions in her eyes that she shamed to say with her lips, nor the child that crowed at him from her arms. He was deaf and blind to the healthy world, to all save the silly dreams his poisoned soul fed on.

"Well, wicked or not, it is at least unsafe not to look where one is going. This was a thing Stoffel never did: since he overlooked his wife, it was not to be expected he would see a strand of fencing-wire on the ground. So he rode on to it, and down came his horse. Down came Stoffel too, and there was a stone handy on the place where his head lit to let some of the moonshine out of him. He saw a heavenful of stars for a moment, and then saw nothing for a long time. Save—one strange thing!

"When life came back to him he was in his bed very sore and empty, and very mightily surprised to see himself alive, after all. He was exceedingly weak and somewhat misty as to how it all had happened. But one thing he seemed to remember—more than seemed, so strong, so plain, so deep was his memory of it. He thought he recalled pain and blindness, and a sudden light, in which he saw a face close to his, a girl's face, pitiful, tender, loving, and charged with more than all the sweetness of beauty that his sick heart could long for. The thing was like one of those dreams from which one wakes sad and thoughtful, as when one has overstepped the boundary mark of life and cast an eye on heaven.

"It was no face that he knew, and he turned on his pillow to think of it. He could not believe it was a dream. 'It was a soul,' he said to himself. 'I knew, I was sure, that somewhere there was such a face, but it only came to my eyes when I was on the borderland of death. If ever God gave a thing to a mortal man, he should have given me that woman.'

"So with such blasphemous thoughts he idled through the days of his sickness, very quiet, very weak, and kind to his wife beyond the ordinary. Of course she, poor woman, knew nothing of the silly tale, and when her husband gave her those little caresses one would not withhold from an affectionate dog, she blessed God that he was come to himself again. You see, Katje dear, that as a man demands more than he can claim with right, a woman must often make shift with less. It is well to learn this early.

"Stoffel grew well in time, and got about again. But the stone had made less of a dent in his skull than the face in his heart, and he was changed altogether. He served a false god, but served it faithfully. He was very gentle and patient with every one, almost like a saint, and he took infinite pains with the work of his farm. He would hurt no living thing—not even so much as lash a team of lazy oxen. You would have thought Kafirs would have done as they pleased with him, but they obeyed his least word, and hung on his eyes for orders as though they worshipped him. Kafirs and dogs will sometimes see farther than a Christian.

"Meanwhile Greta came to die. It was a chill, perhaps, with a trifle of fever on top of that, and it carried her off like a candle-flame when it is blown out. She died well— very well indeed. None of your whimpering and moaning and slinking out of the back-door of life when nobody is looking; nor that unconscious death that shuts out a chance of a few last words. No; Greta saw with her eyes and spoke with her mouth to the last, then folded her hands and died as handsomely as one would wish to see. She prayed a trifle, as she should; forgave her brother's wife for speaking ill of her, and hoped her tongue would not lure her to destruction. I have heard her brother's wife never forgave her for it.

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