Vrouw Grobelaar - Vasco's Sweetheart

Author: Gibbon Perceval

"As to that," said the Vrouw Grobelaar, answering a point that no one had raised, "it has been seen over and over again that sin leaves its mark. Do you not trust or avoid a man because there is honor or wickedness in his face? Ah, men's faces are the writing on the wall, and only the Belshazzars cannot read them.

"But the marks go deeper than a lowering brow or a cruel mouth. Men may die and leave behind them no monuments save their sin. Of such a case I remember one instance.

"Before my second husband was married to his first wife he lived out yonder, on the Portuguese border, and in the thick of the fever country. I have not seen the place, but it is badly spoken of for a desolate, unchancy land, bad for cattle, and only good to hunters. My second husband was a great hunter, and died, as you know, through having his body crushed by a lion. The people out there are not good Boer stock, but a wild and savage folk, with dark blood in them.

"I only know this story from my second husband, but it took hold of me, as he used to tell it. There was a family in those parts of the name of Preez. No relation to the Du Preez you know, who are well enough in their way, but Preez simply,—a short name and a bad one. They were big holders of land, with every reason to be rich, but bad farmers, lazy hunters, and deep drinkers. The Kafirs down there make a drink out of fruit which is very fiery and conquers a man quickly, and these people were always to be seen half drunk, or else stupid from the stuff. Old Preez, the father, in particular, was a terrible man, by all tellings; full threescore and ten years of age, but strong, fiery, and full of oaths. My second husband used to say there was something in the look of him that daunted one; for his hair and his beard were white, his face was savagely red, and his eyes were like hot coals. And with it all he had a way of looking on you that made you run from him. When he was down with drink and fever he would cry out in a terrible voice that his mother was a queen's daughter and he was a prince."

"I have heard of the people you speak of," I said. "They are half-Portuguese, and perhaps the old man was not wholly lying."

"Um! Well, prince or not, he married in his youth a woman of the half-blood, and begot of her a troop of devils. Five sons he had, all great men, knowing not God and fearing none of God's works. And after them came a daughter, a puling slip of a thing, never meant to live, whom they did to death among them with their drinking and blaspheming and fighting.

"My second husband told me tales of that family that set my blood freezing. He had his own way of telling stories, and made you see pictures, as it were. Once, he used to say, for a trifle spoken concerning them and their ways, they visited a missionary by night, dragged him from his bed, and crucified him against his door, while his wife clung to the old man's knees and besought the mercy they never gave and never got. Even the wild folk of the countryside were stricken with the horror and impiety of the deed; and it says much for the fear in which the Preez family were held that none molested them or called them to account.

"In the end the eldest of the five sons took a mind to marry and to leave some of his accursed stock to plague the world when it should be delivered from him and his brothers. They cast about for a wife for him, and were not content with the first that offered. They had their pride, the Preez, and in their place a fair measure of respect, for among the wicked, you know, the devil is king. From one farmhouse to another they rode, dragging forth women and girls to be looked at like cattle. Many a tall, black- browed hussy would have been content to go away with Vasco Preez (such was his unchristian name), but he was not willing to do right by any of them.

"They were returning home from one of these expeditions when they passed a lowly house beside the road with no fence around it. But before the house a girl stood on the grass, with her kapje in her hand, to see the six big men ride by. She was little and slim, and, unlike the maidens of the country, whitish, with a bunch of yellow hair on the top of her head and hanging over her ears. The others would have passed her by, judging her unworthy even an insult, but Vasco reined in his horse and shouted a great oath.

"'The woman for me!' he cried. 'The woman I was looking for! I never knew what I wanted before.'

"The others halted to look, and the girl, frightened, ran into the house. Vasco got down from his horse.

"'Fetch the filly out,' shouted the old man. 'Fetch her out and let us see her paces.'

"Vasco walked straight into the little house, while the others waited, laughing. They heard no screams and no fighting, and presently out comes Vasco alone.

"He went over to his horse and mounted. 'There is nothing to wait for,' he said. 'Let us be getting on.'

"'But the girl?' cried one of his brothers. 'Is she dead, or what?'

"'No,' said Vasco, 'but she would not come.'

"'Would not come!' bellowed the old father, while the others laughed. 'Did you say she would not come?'

"'That is what I said,' answered Vasco, sitting his horse very straight, and scowling at the lot of them.

"'He has a fever,' cried the old man, looking from one to another. 'He is light in the head. My faith! I believe the girl has been beating him with a stick. Here, one of you,' he roared, turning on them, 'get down and kick the girl out of the door. We'll have a look at the witch!'

"Koos, the youngest, sprang from his saddle and made towards the house; but he was not gone five paces before Vasco spurred his horse on to him and knocked him down.

"'Keep off,' he said then, turning to face them all, as Koos rose slowly. 'If I cannot bring the girl out none of you can, and you had better not try. Whoever does will be hurt, for I shall stand in front of the door.'

"And he went straight to the house, and, dismounting, stood in the doorway, with his hands resting on the beam above his head. He was a big man, and he filled the door.

"'Hear him,' foamed the old father. 'God, if I were as young as any of you, I would drag the girl across his body. Sons, he has defied us, and the girl has bewitched him. Run at him, lads, and bring them both out!'

"'They all came towards the house in a body, but stopped when Vasco raised his hand.

"'I warn you,' he told them—'I warn you to let the matter be. This will not be an affair of fighting, with only broken bones to mend when it is over. If I take hold of any one after this warning, that man will be cold before the sun sets. And to show you how useless this quarrel is, I will ask the girl once more if she will come out. You all saw her?'

"'Yes,' they answered; 'but what is this foolery about asking her?'

"'You saw her—very well.' He raised his voice and called into the house, 'Meisje, will you not come out? I ask you to.'

"There was silence for a moment, and then they heard the answer. 'No,' it said; 'I will stay where I am. And you are to go away.'

"'As soon as may be, my girl,' called Vasco in answer.
'Now,' he said to the men, 'you see she will not come.'

"'But, man, in the name of God, cast her over your shoulder and carry her out,' cried the father.

"'Vasco looked at him. 'Not this one,' he said. 'She shall do as she pleases.'

"Then they rushed on him, but he stepped out from the door, and caught young Koos round the middle. With one giant's heave he raised him aloft and dashed him at the gang, scattering them right and left, and knocking one to the ground, where he remained motionless. But Koos lay like a broken tool or a smashed vessel, as dead men lie. And all the while Vasco talked to them.

"'Come on,' he was saying. 'Come all of you. We shall never do anything but fight now. I see plainly we ought to have fought long ago. Bring her out, indeed!'

"They paused after that, aghast at the fury of the man they were contending against. But the old man gave them no rest.

"'Get sticks,' he cried to them—get sticks and kill him.'

"They dragged beams from a hut roof, and one of them took a heavy stone. Vasco stood back and watched them till they came forward again.

"The one with the stone came first, but it was too big to throw from a distance, and he dared not go near. The others approached with caution, and Vasco stood still, with his hands resting as before at the top of the door. They were bewildered at his manner, and very cautious, but at length they drew near and rushed at him.

"Then a most astonishing thing happened. With one wrench Vasco tore the thick architrave from the wall, a beam as thick as a man's thigh, and smote into the middle of them. Where he hit the bone gave and the flesh fell away, and as they ran from before him the wall fell in.

"Down came the wall, and with it the heavy beams on the roof. The old father, cursing over a broken arm, heard the girl scream, and saw the wreck come crashing about Vasco's shoulders till he disappeared below it. And then, where the house had been stood a ruin, with two souls buried in the midst of it.

"It steadied them like a dash of cold water. However they might fight among themselves, they were loyal to one another. Besides the old father, with his broken arm, there was only one other that could put a hand to the work, and together they started to drag away the beams and bricks and stones that covered Vasco and the girl.

"I know they were wicked men who are in hell long since, but I cannot contain a sort of admiration for the spirit that fastened them to their toil all that long night,—the old man with his broken arm, the young one with a dozen horrid wounds. As the sky paled towards morning, they discovered the girl dead, and leaving her where she lay they wrought on to uncover Vasco.

"When they found him he was crushed and broken, and pierced in many places with splinters and jagged broken ends of wood. But he had his senses still, and smiled as they cleared the thatch from above his face.

"The old man looked at him carefully. 'You are dying, my son,' he said.

"'Of course,' answered Vasco. 'Is that Renault?' He smiled again at his brother. 'So there are two of you alive, anyhow. How about the others?'

"'Two dead,' answered his father. 'And the other will not walk again all his days. You are a terrible fighter, my son.'

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