Vrouw Grobelaar - Counting The Colors

Author: Gibbon Perceval

THE horizon to the west was keen as the blade of a knife, and over it all the colors swam and blended in an ecstasy of sunset.

"There is more blood than peace in a sky like that," observed the Vrouw Grobelaar from her armchair on the stoop. "When I was a child, I never saw a mess of fire in the west but I thought it betokened the end of the world. Ah, well, one grows wiser!"

"Green is for love," said Katje. "Do you see any green in the sunset?" I saw a mile of it edging on a sea of orange and a mountain of azure.

"Where?" demanded the old lady. "Oh, that—that's almost blue, which means sin in marriage. But naming the colors in the sky is a wasteful foolishness, and the folk that are guided by them always tumble in the end. When Jan Uys was on his death-bed, he said Dia had always been counting the colors with the Irishman, and that's what caused all the trouble."

Katje sighed.

"He was a man of sixty," the unconscious Vrouw continued, "and a Boer of the best, with a farm below the Hangklip, where my cousin Barend's aunt is now. He was a rich and righteous man, too, and as upstanding and strong as any man of his age that I ever saw. He had buried four good wives, so nobody can say he wasn't a good husband, but he had a way with him—something heavy and ugly, like a beast or a Kafir—which many girls didn't like. His fifth wife was Dia, who came from Lord knows where, somewhere down south, and she was only sixteen.

"I believe in fitting a girl with a husband when she is ripe, and sixteen is old enough with any well-grown maid. But in the case of Dia, it is a pity somebody did not stop to think. She was more than half a child; just a slender, laughing, running thing that liked sweets and peaches better than coffee and meat, and used to throw stones. She threw one at my cart, with her arm low like a boy, and hit my Kafir on the neck, and then squeaked and ran to hide among the kraals. Yes, somebody should have stopped to think before they coupled her to big Jan Uys, with his scowl and his red eyes and white beard, and his sixty hard years behind him."

"I should think so, indeed," was Katje's comment.

"What you think is of no importance," retorted the old lady sharply. "I think so, and that settles it. Well, it did not take long for Dia to lose all the froth and foolishness that were in her. The child that was more than half of her nature was simply trampled to death, for Jan Uys had a short way of shaping his women-folk. She used to cry, they say, but never dared to rebel, which I can understand, knowing the man and the way he had of giving an order as though it were impossible for any one to disobey him. In particular, she could not learn to make cheese, and spoilt enough milk to feed a dorp on.

"'Very well,' he said, 'if you cannot make the cheese the Kafir woman shall do it. And you shall do her work at the churn-handle. I want no idlers in my house.'

"And there he had her at the churn, grinding like a Kafir, for three days in every week, a white woman and his wife. Once she came to him and held out her hands.

"'Look,' she said. That was all: 'look!'

"Her fingers and her palms were flayed and raw and oozed blood, but he simply glanced at them.

"'You should have learned to work before,' was all his answer. 'Every one pays for learning, and you pay late. Go back to the churn.'

"The next thing', of course, was that she was missing, but Jan Uys was not troubled. He mounted his horse and rode out along the Drifts Road, going quietly, with his pipe alight. It was the road by which he had brought her from her home, and he knew the girl would try to go to her mother. In a few miles he picked up her spoor, and found some of the sole of one of her shoes. A mimosa carried a shred of her dress, and in another place she had sat down. As he went farther, he found she had sat down in many places.

"'Good,' he said. 'She is tired, and soon I shall catch her.'

"He came up with her twenty miles along the road, sitting down again. Her hair was all about her shoulders, and her face was white, with the great eyes burning in it like those of a woman in a fever.

"'You are ready to come back?' he asked, sitting on his horse, smoking and scowling down on her.

"'What are you going to do with me?' she asked in a trembling voice.

"He laughed that short ugly laugh of his. 'You are a child,' he answered. 'I shall whip you.'

"Then she commenced to plead with him to let her go, to return without her, to spare her, to kill her. In the middle of it he leaned from the saddle, and caught hold of her arms and lifted her before him.

"'All this may stop,' he said, turning the horse. 'You have brought disgrace on me; you shall be punished.' And he carried her back.

"He did whip her—not brutally or terribly, I believe, as a man might do from wounded pride and revenge, but as a child is whipped, to warn it against future foolishness. And from the time of that beating the course of their life changed. She was no longer a child, but a very grave and silent woman, not prayerful at all, as might have been hoped, but just still and solemn. Dreadful, I call it. Then the young man Moore entered their lives.

"Jan Uys was making a dam right below the Hangklip. You know the dam: half of it is cut from the rock, and the water all comes into it from the end. It was not a matter of half a dozen Kafirs with spades, like most dams, but a business for dynamite and all kinds of ticklish and awkward work. So Jan wisely did not put his own fingers to it, but sent to the Rand for an Uitlander to come out and burst the rocks; and they sent him this young fellow, the Irishman Moore. He was a tall youth, with hair like some of the red in that sunset over yonder, and a most astonishing way of making you laugh only by talking about ordinary things. And when he joked anybody would laugh, even the Predikant, who was always preaching about the crackling of thorns under a pot. With him, in a black box like a little coffin, he had a machine he called a banjo, upon which he would play lewd and idolatrous music which was most pleasing to the ear; and he would sing songs while he played, which all ended with a yell. He was good at bursting the rocks, too. He would load holes full of dynamite in three or four places at once, and fetch tons of stone and earth out with each explosion. Jan Uys was pleased with him, for the young man cared nothing at all for his savage looks and ugly ways, and called him the Old Obadiah, who was a writer of the Bible.

"'My wife,' he told him, 'is a young woman, and sad. You must talk to her in the evenings and make her laugh.'

"The Irishman looked at him with a strange face. 'The poor creature needs a laugh,' he said.

"So he used to talk to her on the stoop in the evenings, while Jan sat within at his Bible, and heard the murmur of their talk without. More than once, too, he heard a sound that was no longer familiar to him—the sound of Dia's pleasant childish laughter, and he scowled at his book and told himself he was satisfied. I think, perhaps, he had sometimes seen himself as he was, an old hard man crushing the soul of a child. Vaguely, perhaps, and unwillingly, but still he saw it sometimes.

"This went on. The Irishman blew up his dynamite and talked with Dia and played with her. Jan, watching, saw the color had returned to her cheeks and the life to her eyes. He came into the kitchen once and she was singing. She stopped suddenly.

"'Why do you not go on?' he asked, with his little red eyes staring at her.

"She had nothing to say, and he went away, to go down to the dam. The Irishman was sitting on an ant-heap away in the sun, and Jan passed him without speaking, and walked down to the place of explosions. He was looking at the marks of fire on the rocks, when it seemed to him he heard a shout, and he saw, as he turned his head, that the Irishman was standing up. But he made no beck, and Jan walked along. When he looked again the young man had both hands to his head. Jan shaded his eyes to watch him.

"Moore walked a few paces to and fro, stood still, and then, with a start, commenced to run furiously down to where Jan was standing. He ran with long strides and very fast, and was soon beside the old man, and seized him by the arm.

"'Out of this!' he cried. 'Out of this! The holes are loaded, and ye've sixty seconds to save yer life.'

"Jan stood still. 'Why did you not tell me before?' he asked; but the other did not answer, but only dragged at his arm.

"Jan shook his hand off. 'I have a mind to stay,' he said in a calm voice. 'If Dia is made a widow, you will know how to look after her.'

"'And that's true!' cried the Irishman. 'But you shan't make a murderer of me.'

"And he drew back his fist and knocked the old man down. Catching him by the collar, he dragged him to the shelter of a big boulder, flung him close to it, and lay down on top of his body. In the next moment the blast went off, and the gust of fire and rocks and earth roared and whistled through the air above them. The sound struck them like a bludgeon, and they lay for a while, stunned and deafened, while pieces of stone slid and tinkled on the boulder that had sheltered them. At last they rose.

"'I made a mistake and I am glad,' said Jan.

"'Will you shake hands with me?'

"'I will not,' was the answer.

"'So be it. But there can be no need to tell Dia of this.'

"The Irishman nodded, and that afternoon, again, he and Dia were in the garden, throwing stones at a sardine-tin on a stick to see who could hit it first. Dia knocked it down easily, and Jan, sitting indoors with his coat off, heard them laughing.

"At supper that night he looked up to Dia.

"'This coffee has a sour taste,' he said.

"'Mine hasn't,' said the Irishman.

"'Try mine, then,' said Jan, and passed Dia his cup to hand to him. She fumbled in taking it and dropped it on the floor. The new cup that she poured out for him had no sour taste.

"For several days after that there was a sour taste in many things that he ate and drank, and he complained of it each time.

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