Vrouw Grobelaar - The Peruvian

Author: Gibbon Perceval

FROM her pocket Katje produced stealthily a clean-scoured wish-bone. The Vrouw Grobelaar was sleeping in her chair with tight-shut eyes. So I took one end of the bone, and we broke it, and the wish remained with Katje.

"Wish quick," I said.

She puckered her pretty brows with a charming childish thoughtfulness.

"I can't think of anything to wish for," she answered.

"Wish to be delivered from the sin of playing with witchcraft and dirty old bones!" The suggestion echoed roundly in the old lady's deep tones, and we, startled and abashed, looked up to find her wide awake, and in her didactic mood. The Vrouw Grobelaar never slept to any real purpose. One might have remembered that.

"Yes, witchcraft," she pursued. "For if bones are not witchcraft, tell me what is? When a Hottentot wants to find a strayed ox, he makes magic with bones, doesn't he? And the bones of a dead baboon are dangerous things too. Katje, throw that bone away."

Katje, who hated to be found out, threw it over the rail of the stoop into the kraal. When the good Vrouw had kept her steady eye on me for a few seconds, I threw my half after Katje's.

"I thought so," said the Vrouw Grobelaar, with a twitch of the lips like a smile stillborn.

"It's only a game," said Katje plaintively. "There's no harm in it."

The old lady shook her head.

"There's harm in things you don't understand," she pronounced. "There's harm in failing in love, for instance, if you don't know what you are doing. But witchcraft is worse than anything. You've seen how hard it is to make a Kafir doctor show his tricks. That's because he's never certain which is master, he or the devil. I knew a man once, a Peruvian, who burned his fingers badly."

A Peruvian, for the Vrouw Grobelaar, was any one for whose nationality she had no name. In Johannesburg it means a Polish Jew; in this instance I believe the man was a Greek.

"He was a smouser" (pedlar), she went on, "a little cowering man, with a black beard and a white face, who spoke Kafir better than he spoke the Taal. He sold thimbles and pills and hymn-books to the wives and daughters of Burghers, and grand watches and cheap diamonds to the Kafirs. It was a dirty little trade, and there was nothing about the man that streaked it with nobility. I remember a Scotch smouser, who was called Peter Piper, who sold pills like a chemist, and everybody liked him and respected him, till he had his great dispute with the Predikant at Dopfontein. But this little man was like a slimy thing made to crawl on its belly; and many is the time he would have been sjamboked from a door, were it not for—well, I don't know. But he was such a mean helpless thing, that, when he shrank away and looked up, with his white eyes staring and his lips parted, not the most wrathful Burgher could lift a whip.

"And even as he seemed to fear everything, the Kafirs certainly feared him. Kafirs, you know, go naked to all the little winds, and the breezes that will not hurt a thatch carry death to them. They are deaf to God. but the devil has but to whisper, and they hear. They bought shameful watches and sleepy diamonds from the Peruvian, as they kill a goat at the flowering of the crops—to appease something that might else visit them in the night. It was a thing much spoken of, and since even among the Burghers there are folks who dirty their fingers with magic and wish-bones—ay, you may well pout!—perhaps this had something to do with the fact that he was never flogged to the beacons and kicked across.

"In fact, there grew up about him a something of mystery, uncanny and not respectable. The little plodding man who went so meekly past our gates had a shadow one feared to tread on.

"You won't remember, but you will have heard of, the terrible to-do there was when Freda van der Byl disappeared. She was a most ordinary girl, perhaps eighteen years old, with a fine appetite, and nothing whatsoever about her that was strange or extraordinary: and yet one night she was missing, and it has never been set past doubt who saw her last. She was on the stoop in the afternoon, ate well at supper, went out then in the usual way to the hut where the tobacco-sacks were, and never came in again. She disappeared like a flame blown out, with never a spoor to give direction to those that sought her, without a shred of clothing on a thorn-bush to hint at a tale. She seemed to have fled clean out of the world—a big ten—stone girl with red hair melted like a bubble.

"And how they hunted for her! Old Johannes van der Byl and his sons went through the country like locusts, and with them were a mob of relations and friends, and some prospectors from the Hangklip who betted about it. Every kloof was scoured, every Kafir stad and kraal turned inside out, and the half of them burned. Their ponies streaked the long grass of the veld for miles; the men, their loaded rifles in hand, were abroad late and early; and yet they never found even a shoe-sole or a shred of hair to give them a clue. The witch-doctors would have been glad enough to find her, for they were flogged from morning to night, and Barend van der Byl beat the life out of one who did not seem to be doing his best. If Freda had been anywhere in the veld she would have been found, so fervently did the Kafirs hunt her in order to get a little peace and security.

"But nothing availed; no trace of her came to light, and even the women of her family grew tired of weeping. But one hot dusty afternoon, when her brothers Jacobus and Piet were riding home from the fruitless search, they came upon the Peruvian sitting under a bush smoking his yellow cigarettes. He glanced up at them as they went past, slavish as ever, yet still with that subtle significance of mien that made him noteworthy, and suddenly Jacobus reined up.

"'Piet,' he called, pointing with his sjambok. Look—our last chance!'

"Piet did not understand.

"'We have been cutting the Kafir doctors into ribbons,' explained Jacobus, 'and they were no good. But here is a wizard, and a white one, who won't wait to be flogged. If he can do nothing, then there is nothing to do. Let us bring him along, Piet.'

"Piet was a fat youth, deadly strong, who never spoke while there was work to do. He merely dropped from his saddle and caught the Peruvian deftly by the back of the neck. The smouser, of course, whined and squirmed, but Piet was the man who broke the bullock's neck at Bothaskraal, and he made no difficulty of tying the little man's wrists to his off stirrup. All his trinkets and fallals they left behind, and riding at a walk, talking calmly between themselves of the buck with wide horns that the Predikant's cousin missed, they dragged the little smouser to the homestead.

"'Several of the men had already come back, and when they heard Jacobus's plan, some were openly afraid and wished to have the Peruvian set loose. But Oom Johannes cursed at them and smacked Jacobus on the back.

"'My daughter is lost, and evil tongues are active about her,' he roared. 'I want her back, and I don't care how she comes. Come to supper, Jacobus; and afterwards you shall take your smouser into a hut and persuade him.'

"It was not an easy thing to make the Peruvian understand what was wanted of him. But by and by, when he had been argued with in Dutch and Kafir, and shown a skull that was found in a kloof, and the dol oss, and a picture in the Bible of the Witch of Endor, he suddenly grasped the idea, and grinned. Piet spat on the ground as the white teeth gleamed through the greasy black beard.

"'Yes, perhaps I can do that,' said the Peruvian, in the
Taal. 'Perhaps, but one cannot be sure. You will pay, eh?'
"Jacobus wanted to threaten, but Oom Johannes would not have it.

"'Find my girl,' he said, 'and you shall be paid. Fifty pounds for any news of her, more if she is alive and well.'

"But the smouser explained that he could only find her if she were dead.

"'I can get her to speak, perhaps,' he said. 'More? No!'

"At last Jacobus and Piet took him into one of the big huts and gave him the little lamp that he demanded. He set it in the middle of the floor, and when they pulled to the door behind them the big domed hut was still almost dark, save for the ring of quiet light in the centre that flickered a little.

"'I wish he could do this kind of thing when I'm not there,' grumbled Jacobus, who hated creepy things.

"'Hush! be quiet!' commanded the Peruvian, and the two young men sat down, very close together, with their backs to the door.

"'The first thing that the Peruvian did was to take off all his clothes, and then he came into the dim circle of light mother-naked. He was a little man at best, but Piet said afterwards the muscles stood out under his swarthy skin in knots and ridges. And there he stood, facing them across the lamp, with his arms stretched forwards and his hands just fluttering loosely. Nothing more. His eyes were upturned and his face lifted, so that a streak of shadow rose across it, and the black beard against his neck rose and fell with his breathing. But for the gentle flutter of his hands and the heave of his chest he was still as stone— so still that for those who watched him all relation to human kind seemed to leave him, and he was a being alone in a twilight world of his own, a creature as remote and as little to be understood as the spirits of the dead.

"Have you ever, when wakeful in a hot night, with darkness all about you, called yourself by name again and again? It was a trick we dared sometimes when I was a girl. After a while it is something else that is calling, something of you but not in you, to which your soul answers at last; and if you go on till the will to call is no longer your own, the soul goes forth in response to it, and you are dead. And even so, gaunt in the beam of the lamp, the Peruvian seemed to insist upon himself, till the eyes of the watchers were for him only, till that which they saw was less the mean body of the smouser than the vehicle of the potent soul within.

"Piet was a youth as solid in mind as in body, and ere the scene grasped him against his will he says he saw with an angry impatience the flicker of a leer on the darkened face of the Peruvian. But it did not last. In a few minutes the two young Burghers were not the only ones whom the spell had subdued—the wizard was netted too. And then, as he stood, his hands still fluttering, they heard him drone a string of words, a dull chant, level like an incantation, inevitably apt to the hour and the event.

"They did not know how long they crouched, watching unwinkingly till their eyes grew sore; but at last it seemed that the posturing and the words had made something due. Jacobus started as though from sleep, and Piet, who was not till then frightened, looked up quickly. He caught sight of something—a shadow, a hint, a presence in the darkness behind the naked man, and knew, somehow, with a coldness of alarm, that IT had arrived. He barely realized this knowledge when the power of the quietness and the jugglery were rudely sundered, and the Peruvian, shrieking and clucking in his throat, dived towards them and tried to hide. He plunged frantically against the door, which gave and let him fall through, and in a moment, with the cold sweat of horror upon them, Piet and Jacobus struggled through after him and ran with still hearts for the house.

"But in that moment that he was jammed in the narrow doorway with his brother, Piet saw into the hut, and there was something there. There was another with them.

"They came fast to the lighted room upon the heels of the naked Peruvian, who fell on his face and writhed, weeping in sheer terror. There was alarm, and chairs overturned, and screaming of women, and it was long before they could get the smouser to his feet and bring him to speech. And then he would not go a foot away from them.

"'It came; it came!' he babbled, quivering under the table- cloth they had cast over his nakedness. 'It came—behind me!' and forthwith he began to stammer in his own strange tongue.

"'What was it?' demanded Oom Johannes, who was beginning to feel nervous.

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