Vrouw Grobelaar - Piet Naude's Trek

Author: Gibbon Perceval

On Sunday afternoons the Vrouw Grobelaar's household gave itself up, unwillingly enough, to religious exercises. The girls retired to their rooms in company with the works of certain well-meaning but inexpressibly dreary authors, and it is to be inferred they read them with profit. The children sat around the big room with Bibles, their task being to learn by heart one of the eight-verse articulations of the 119th Psalm, while the old lady meditated in her armchair and maintained discipline. Those were stern times for the young students: to fidget in one's seat was to court calamity; even to scratch oneself was a risky experiment. David got little credit as a bard in that assembly.

But the work once done, the stumbling recitation dared and achieved, there were compensations, for the Vrouw Grobelaar was then approachable for a story. To be sure, the Sunday afternoon stories were known to all the children almost by heart, but what good tale will not bear repetition? The history of Piet Naude's Trek was an evergreen favorite, and bore a weighty moral.

The old lady began this story in the only possible way. "Once upon a time, long before the Boers came to the Transvaal, there lived a man named Piet Naude. He was a tall, strong Burgher, with a long beard that swept down to his waist, and a moustache like bright gold that drooped lower than his chin. His eye was so clear that he could see the legs of a galloping buck a mile away; his hand was so sure that he never wasted a bullet; and his heart was so good and true that all the Burghers loved him and followed him in whatever he did.

"Well, when the English came to the Burghers and wanted them to pay taxes for their farms that they had won in battle from the Kafirs, all the men in Piet Naude's country were very angry and said, 'Let us take our guns and shoot the English into the sea, so that the land will be clear of them.' Everybody was willing, and but for Piet Naude there would have been a great and bloody war, and all the English would have been killed.

"But Piet Naude said, 'Brothers, have patience. When we fought the Kafirs we beat them, but many of us were killed also. If we fight the English, many more will be killed, and we are not too many now. But I will tell you what we will do. We will not pay this tax. We will inspan our oxen and load up our wagons, and we will take our sheep and our cattle and our horses, and trek to the north until we find a place where we can live in peace; and thus we shall have a country of our own and pay no taxes to anybody.'

"As soon as the Burghers heard this they were agreed, and chose out Piet Naude to lead them to the new country. So when the English came to collect the tax they found nobody to pay, but only an empty country, with trampled cornlands and burned homesteads, and wild Kafirs living in the kraals.

"But Piet Naude and his Burghers trekked steadily on with the wagons and the cattle,—sometimes through a fine level country full of water and game, and sometimes through a savage wilderness of rocks and dangerous beasts. The sun scorched them by day and the mists froze them by night; some died by the way, and some were killed by lions, and some bitten by snakes. But month after month they held on, crawling slowly over the desolate face of that great new country, till at length the ragged weary men cried out and said they would go no farther.

"'Let us go back to the grass-lands and water,' they said, 'and let us live there, else we shall die, forgotten of God, in this inhospitable wilderness.' But Piet Naude wrought with them, saying, 'Let us keep good hearts and hold on. In time we shall surely come to the best place of all, where we shall gain cattle and sheep and prosper all our lives.' And after he had talked with them for a long time, and shamed them with their weakness, they were persuaded, and once again they faced the great unknown country and trekked on.

"But one hot day one of the Burghers who had ridden away to look for meat came galloping back. 'Over yonder,' he said, pointing with his hand, 'there is a wide kloof, with a stream in it. There is grass there as long and thick as the best pasture of our farms, with trees and wild fruit, and everything plentiful and beautiful. Without doubt it will lead us to such a place as we have been seeking.'

"So the wagons were turned aside, and they went forward to the kloof, all the Burghers uplifted with hope, and the very oxen pulling their best. But Piet Naude said nothing, for he had a strange doubt in his heart, and he rode on anxiously. And when they came to the kloof they saw that all the Burgher had said was even less than true. The veld underfoot was soft and tender as satin, and the grass was fresh and green. On each side the tall hills cast back the sun, so that the beautiful cool shade fell like a blessing on their scorched faces. There was wild hemp {dagga} for the Kafirs to smoke; and wild apricots running over the stones; water splashing, clear and fresh, beside the way; mimosa-trees to give wood for the fires; and everywhere they saw the spoor of every kind of buck. The Burghers were overwhelmed with gladness, and pushed on gaily.

"On the next day the kloof widened out, and they came forth into a most wonderful plain girt round with steep cliffs, and all overgrown with grass and trees. At a little distance they saw cattle grazing wild, and big herds of buck roaming in the open. Birds started without fear from under their feet, and in the streams fish swam plain to see.

"Then Piet Naude said, 'Brothers, let us go away from this place. I am afraid of all I see. God did not send all this wealth easy to our hands at no cost of labor. Let us go away lest we be entrapped into some devilishness.' But the others laughed him down and would not listen to him, saying his brain was rotten in his head with the long trek and the sun.

"So there they stayed and built themselves houses and kraals, and set about gathering the hay and catching cattle. But everything fell out so easily and all they needed came so plentifully that there grew over them a sort of sloth, and they slept without shame in the hours of work, and gave no attention to the future.

"Then by degrees it began to be noticed that they were growing fat. Soon they had bellies like sows, and their necks and their limbs became so great that they were obliged to go about without clothes, like the wild Kafirs and the brutes that perish. And when one of them would lie down, his fatness so burdened him that without help he could scarcely rise to his feet. None were spared: even the godly Piet Naude was as great as an ox; but the difference was, he felt shame for it all, whereas the others felt none.

"Many a time he implored them to inspan and leave the place; but each time they cried him down. And when he said he would go himself, they reminded him that it was he who had urged them to trek, and asked him if he would now desert them. So for a while he stayed.

"But at length he resolved he would no longer be bound, and he called to know who would go with him. But as he spoke a storm came up, and the wind screamed and the rain threshed, and the poor fat creatures waddled off to their houses, and of all that people only one stayed to go with Piet Naude. It was a young Burgher whose name was Hendrik Van der Merwe, a decent lad; and the two set off together.

"But when they came to the beautiful kloof they were amazed at the work of the storm. The wind had torn great boulders from the hills and rolled them down; and the rain had churned the earth into mud, and washed the roots of the trees loose; so that where everything had once been so fair and orderly there was now a crazy wilderness of rocks and thorns and mud.

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