Vrouw Grobelaar - A Good End

Author: Gibbon Perceval

One of the most awe-inspiring traits of the Vrouw Grobelaar was her familiarity with the subject of death. She had a discriminating taste in corpses, and remembered of several old friends only the figure they cut when the life was gone from them. She was as opinionative in this regard as in all others; she had her likes and dislikes, and it is my firm belief to this day that she never rose to such heights of conversational greatness as when attending a death-bed. It is on record that more than one invalid was relieved of all desire to live after being prepared for dissolution by the Vrouw Grobelaar.

On the evening following the burial of Katrina Potgieter's baby, which died of drinking water after a surfeit of dried peaches, the old lady was in great feather. Never were her reminiscences so ghoulish and terrifying, and never did she hurl her weighty moralities over so wide a scope. Eventually she lapsed into criticism, and announced that the art of dying effectively was little practiced nowadays.

"I hate to see a person slink out of life," she said. "Give me a man or a woman that knows all clearly to the last, and gives other people an opportunity to see some little way into eternity. After all, there's nothing more in dying than changing the style of one's clothes, and even the most paltry folk have some consideration as corpses. I can't see what there is to be afraid of."

"I don't think that," observed Katje. "Even if it wasn't that I was soon to be dead and buried, the whole business seems horrible. Fancy all the people crowding round to look at you and cry, while they talked as if you were already dead. When Polly Honiball was dying, old Vrouw Meyers asked her if she could see anything yet. Ugh!"

The old lady shook her head. "That's not the way to look at it," she replied. "A good death is the sign of a good life; or anyhow, that's how people judge it. It's as well to give no room for talk afterwards, Katje. And as for the mere death, no good Christian fears that. Why, I have known a man seek death!"

"Did he kill himself?" inquired Katje.

"Kill himself! Indeed he didn't. That would be a crime, and a dreadful scandal. No, he took death by the hand in a most seemly and respectable way, and his family were always thought the better of for it.

"Yes, I'll tell you about it. It will be a lesson to you, Katje, and I hope you will think about it and take it to heart.

"The man I am talking about was Mynheer Andries van der Linden, a most godly and prosperous Burgher, whose farm was on the High Veld. All the days of his life he walked uprightly, and married twice. His sons and daughters were many, and all good, save for one sidelong skellum, Piet, his second son, who afterwards went to live among the English. He had cattle and sheep at pasture for miles, and a kerk on his land, where his nephew, the Predikant, used to preach. And by reason of his sanctity and cleverness Andries grew richer and richer till the Burghers respected him so much that they made him a commandant and a member of the Church Council.

"All prospered with him, as I was telling you, until one day it seemed as if God's hand had fallen from him. He was smitten with a disease of which not the oldest woman in the district had ever seen the like, and his own flesh became a curse to him. The very marrow in his bones bred fire to feed on his body, and he lay on his bed in the torments of hell. For weeks he writhed and screamed like a madman, tossing on his blankets and tearing at his body, or struggling and howling as his sons held him down for fear he should injure himself in his frenzy. The whole thing was very terrible and mysterious; and it was said among the farms that Andries van der Linden could not have been so good after all, or God would not thus visit him with such a scourge.

"For myself, I never believed this, and what he afterwards did will show that I had the right of it. Still, good or bad, the affliction was undeniable, for I myself heard him screaming like a beast as I drove to Nachtmaal.

"The malady lasted for months, and all herbs and pills that were given him did not an atom of good. Even the Kafirs could do nothing, though Klein Andries, the old man's eldest son and a good lad, caught a witch-doctor and sjamboked him to pieces to make him help. In short, the illness was plainly beyond mortal cure, and the old man at last came to see this.

"I should have told you that he had times of peace, when the agony forsook him, and left him limp like a wet clout. Then he would sweat and quake with terror of the pains that would return; and so pitiful was his condition that he could not even listen with a proper patience to the reading of Scripture or the singing of David's psalms. You will see from this what a terrible visitation to a God-fearing man this illness was.

"So he made up his mind. One morning early, while quietness was with him, he called for Klein Andries and bade him shut the door of the room.

"'Andries,' he said, 'I have been thinking the matter to a finish, and I am determined to have an end to this torment.'

"'Have you found any means?' began Klein Andries.

"'Listen,' said the old man. 'It is plain to me, that I shall gain no cure on earth, and I have decided to die. So I shall die at the end of a week about two hours after sunrise.'

"Andries was of course very much taken aback. 'I do not understand,' he said. 'You cannot mean to kill yourself?'

"'Of course not,' answered the old man. 'That will be your part.'

"'How do you mean?' cried Andries.

"'I shall lie here in my bed, with clean pillows and fresh sheets, and the best coverlet. Our people will all be here,—you will see to that,—and when I have spoken to them and shaken their hands, you shall bring in your rifle—'

"'That will do,' said Klein Andries. 'You need tell me no more. I will not do it.'

"'But you are my first-born,' said the father.

"'It is all the same; I will not do it.'

"'Then you can get out of my house, with your wife and your children, and go look for a stone on which to lay your heads.'

"'That is very easy,' answered Klein Andries, quite calmly.
'No doubt we shall find that stone you speak of.'

"'And I will get Piet to do it,' said the old man.

"'No,' replied Klein Andries. 'Piet shall not do it.
Nobody shall do it. I will not have it done.'

"'Andries,' said the old man, 'you and I must not talk thus. I am your father, and I tell you to do me this service. Say rather, I ask it of you. It is no more than an act of kindness to a stricken man; your hand on the gun will be the hand of mercy.'

"'But I cannot do it,' cried out Klein Andries in a sort of pain.

"'You will do it,' said the old man. 'Remember you are the eldest of my sons. You will do it, Andries?'

"'No,' said Andries.

"'You will do it?'

"'No!'

"'Then, Andries,' said the old man, half raising himself as he lay, and pointing a finger at his son—'then, Andries, eldest son and dearest and all, I will curse you.'

"For a full minute the two looked each other in the eyes, and then Klein Andries let his hand fall on his knee like a man beaten and broken.

"'It shall be as you say,' he answered at last. 'I will do what you ask, but—it will spoil my life for me.'

"'Thank you, my son,' said the old man, sinking back.

"'Oh, I will do it,' said Andries. 'But I hold it a sin, a black and bloody sin, that I commit with open eyes and a full knowledge. But I will do it.'

"So the thing happened, and all that week before his death the old man suffered little. As he said himself, his last taste of life was sweet in his mouth. He thought much upon his grave and the manner of his burying, and would often talk with Klein Andries and Piet, and give them directions.

"'I will not be buried in the kraal,' he said one day. 'My sister Greta never had any love for me, and I had just as lief not disturb her. Put me on top of the hill there; I was always one for an open view.'

"From where he lay he could see through the window the place where he desired to be buried, and the grave of his cousin Cornel, dead twenty years before..

"'Put me, then, on top of the hill,' he said, 'and I shall be able to overlook Cornel. He has a head-board with a round top, so you will give me two boards, one at my head and one at my feet, both with round tops. You would not have that carrion triumph over me?'

"'It shall be done,' said Andries.

"'And you might carve a verse on my headboard,' the old man went on. 'Cornel has only his name and dates, and no doubt he counts on my having no more. His board is only painted; see that you carve mine.'

"'I do not carve letters very well,' began Andries, 'but—'

"'Oh, you carve well enough,' said the old man. 'Very well indeed, considering. You won't have to do very much. There are plenty of short verses in the Psalms, and some—very good ones, too—in Proverbs. The Predikant will soon choose a verse of the right sort. Say a verse, Andries; it is not much.'

"'I will see to it,' said Andries.

"Then Piet, whose mind was a dunghill, had a horrible thought. 'But what about the water?' he cried, for the stream from which they took their drinking-water ran past the foot of the hill.

"'You must draw your water higher up, answered the old man. 'If I were not about to die, Piet, and therefore under a need to judge not, lest I be judged, I would cut down your oxen and sheep for that. Go out; I will say what I have to say to Andries.'

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