Vrouw Grobelaar - Tagalash

Author: Gibbon Perceval

When we came to the farmhouse, Katje and I, the Vrouw Grobelaar asked if we had been down by the spruit. We had— all the afternoon. There are cool and lonely places in the long grass beside the spruit, where its midsummer trickle of water sojourns peacefully in wide pools of depth and quiet.

"You can't mind that, anyhow," said Katje patiently.

"Why can't I?" demanded the Vrouw Grobelaar. "Why can't I mind that as well as anything else? I tell you, my girl, that things are not quite so simple as you take them to be. Even a herd of swine can house a devil, mark you. A bit of stick in the path can be a puff adder, and there are spells tucked away in the words of the Psalms even. And the spruit! Why, you crazy child, a spruit is just the place for things to lurk in wait. Yes, slippery things that have no name in man's speech. Even the Kafirs know of a spirit that lives in a pool."

Katje laughed, "Oh, Tagalash!" she said.

Tagalash is the little god who abducts girls who go down to fetch water in the evening, and carries them away to the dim world under the floor of the pools to be his brides. He lives in the water, and sings in the reeds, sometimes, of an evening and at other times works mischief among the crops and the cattle with spells that baffle the husbandman.

So Katje laughed as she mentioned him, and the Vrouw
Grobelaar bridled ominously.
"You laugh," she said scathingly—"you laugh in the face of wisdom and counsel as they laughed in Sodom and Gomorrah. Yes; Tagalash, Katje! What have you to say against Tagalash? You think, I suppose, that he doesn't exist. I tell you, my girl, there's many a god of the heathen who is a devil of the Christians. That's what Christianity is for— to make devils of the gods of the heathen. And besides, this Tagalash is not like the others. He has been seen."

She paused. "Who by, Tante?" I asked, while Katje affected to whistle carelessly.

"Ah," she said, "you want to know? Well, Tagalash was seen and felt and had speech of by one who told it afterwards with white lips and fevered eyes that compelled belief. A Boer woman, mind you, and no liar; the young wife of an upright and well-seen Burgher, who had his farm an easy four hours from here.

"It is Folly Joubert I mean, who married when she was eighteen one Johannes Olivier, a youth with hair like an Irishman—all red. I had known her somewhat, and she was just that kind of girl in whom one feels the thrust of a fate. She was thin, for one thing, and without any of the comfortable comeliness that makes young men doubtful and old men sure. She had a face that was always rapt, lips that parted of themselves as if in wonder at great things newly seen, and big troubled eyes that spoke, despite her leanness and long legs, of a spring of hot blood crouching within her. Yes, she seemed doomed to something far and tragic, and outside the lives of decent stupid men.

"There was much bother, I believe, to persuade her to a marriage with Johannes, though he was rich enough.

"Perhaps it was hard on her, but then it must have been hard on him too. For he was another kind than she; just a big youth that ate four times a day with desperation, and lived the rest of the time as a tree lives. There is no harm in such men, though; it is they that people this world and have the right to guide it, for they put most into it and hew most from it; but for those who are born with a streak of heaven or hell in their fabric, they are heavy companions at the best. But these two married at last, and faced life like oxen that pull different ways in the same yoke. And within a month Johannes walked about with a face like one who tries to guess a riddle-troubled and puzzled; and Polly was walking elsewhere, carving herself a new religion from the stones of the bitterness of life.

"I have the rest from her own lips, as she told it when she came back. Yes, she went away—I will make that plain enough. It was after a quarrel with Johannes over some little grossness of no consequence that she walked forth from the house and down towards the spruit. It was between afternoon and evening, and she sought a quiet place to sit and prey on her heart. There was a pool that summer, deep and very black, lying between steep banks on which grew bushes and tall grass, and to this she came and sat by the edge of the water, and dabbled her long thin fingers in its coolness and let her thoughts surge in her.

"'I thought of death,' she said, as she sat in her chair and told of it—'of death, and peace, and hatred glutted, and dead enemies, and love, and sin. A wild storm of dreams, was it not? A grim tempest to lay waste a sore heart. And she only eighteen, with eyes like lakes on a mountainside!' As she told it, she cast back on her memory— you could see she was aching to strip her fault naked and scourge it before us all—'And the thoughts were like a sleeping draught to my anger,' she went on pitifully. 'I drowned my wrath in dreams of vengeance and sinful hopes of a joy to find in the future.'

"'I conjured up faces of eager, bold men who should court me, and one that I had thought on before—a small man, lean at the waist, who moved like a spark among burning wood, and laughed ere he struck.' Her finger traveled in the air, and he was plain to see.

"She went on: 'I was looking in the water between my hands, creating my lover by the spell of desire, and I could see his face in the vortex my fingers made as I moved them to and fro. I gazed and gazed and gazed, and then, suddenly, some fear gripped me, for the face became a face of a man, with the idle water swilling across it. But it was a face: my mind battled against the realization till the fact governed it. It was a face, brown and keen and smiling with a gleam of white teeth, and then a hand met my hand in the water and drew me forward. I did not drag back. I think I fell on my face, but here I have no memory.'

"When again she came to a sense of things, she was lying in a dim place where all that moved seemed shadows only. At first it was her thought that she was yet on the bank by the pool, but as her mind renewed its hold she knew this was not so. She breathed an air alien to her living nostrils, and knew that here she had no part in a world of human creatures, and the thought rose in her that she was dead, drowned in the pool, and had reached the next world. 'Can this be hell?' she wondered, as she rose to a sitting posture and strove to see about her.

"It was a grassed mound she sat on, in a kind of plain, and she heard the creaking of bushes about her where no wind breathed on her cheek. The dimness was not the part darkness of a summer night, but a shadow where no sun had ever shone, a barren gloom that was lugubrious and uneasy. A dozen feet from her all was blurred and not to be distinguished, but it seemed to her that many people moved round about her, and now and again there was a rustle of hushed voices, as of folk who met stealthily and spoke with checked breath. In the dimness shapes moved, faintly suggested to her eyes, and presently, though she had no thrill of fear, a loneliness oppressed her that nearly made her weep. She was not as one that has no comrade in the world, for such a one is at least kin by blood and flesh to all others. She was alone, as a living man in a tomb is alone.

"With a little fervor of troubled recollection, like a child reciting a psalm, she told us how she rose to her feet and gazed about her, pondering which way to take. And while she was yet doubtful a hand touched her elbow, and she started to face a man that had come from behind her. Staring at his face with wits clenched like a fist, the contours of the face in the water returned to her mind, the sharp brown face that had grown up in the middle of the countenance she dreamed upon, and she knew in a moment that here was the face again and the rest of the man with it.

"'I knew it at once when his teeth shone through his smile,' she said. 'He was not so tall as I, and very brown in that sorrowful light, but not black. There was a robe he wore from his neck to his ankles that left one arm bare and the little feet below its hem, and his head was bare with straight black hair upon it. His hand was on my arm, and he stood before me and looked in my face and smiled a little at me, very gently and timidly.'

"It seems he found her scarcely less strange than she found him. In his bearing was something of awe and wonder, while she stared with a mere surprise.

"'Are you a man?' she asked at length, stupidly.

"He smiled yet. 'No,' he answered gently. 'But oh, you are beautiful!'

"She replied nothing at first, and he went on with a soft voice like the voice of a tender child. 'I saw you in the water long ago, I looking up to you, you looking down to where I was hidden. I smiled to you and reached my hand, but there was no smile on your face, and I did not dare take you till—till this time. Then your hands were stretched forward, and as I clasped them you sank to me,—my beloved! my beloved!'

"His brown face glowed upon his words with a fire of worship. She started back from him with a quick terror, hands clasped and lips parted.

"'Tell me,' she cried, 'tell me, where am I? What is this place? Am I dead at last?'

"He soothed her. 'You are in my country,' he said very gently. 'Now it is your country, as I am yours. You are not dead but living, and brimming with the love I languish for; and here you will stay with me, and we will love one another very tenderly in the heart of my gloom, and you will be my bride.

"'Oh, listen to me!' he cried, when she would have answered. 'Many slim and delicate girls have come to me through the mirror of the pool, but none such as you, with a warm soul floating on your face and a bosom aching for love. When first I saw you I yearned for you, I coveted you. The thought of you was my food and drink, and stayed my eyes from sleep; I set my spell on the waters that they should slumber and hold your image unbroken, and now I have you; you are here with me. You are mine.'

"He was glowing with a kind of eagerness it hurts one to rebuff, and she watched him, her fears under control, with a growing wonder.

"'Yes,' she said slowly. 'It must be true, then—that old tale. You are Tagalash!'

"He smiled. I am Tagalash,' he answered.

"'But,' she said, 'I am white!' For no one had ever heard of any but Kafir brides for Tagalash.

"He shrank a little, but smiled yet beseechingly, as he would have her cease that part of the tale.

"'You are so beautiful,' he urged, come with me to my house, will you not?'

"But that she would not do, and moved not from her place on the grassed knoll throughout her stay in the shadows— something like a week.

"'I am the wife of Johannes Olivier,' she said, and her words sounded foolish in her own ears. 'I am a wife,' she persisted, there in that dead land of the black gods. 'I want to go back,' she cried like a strayed child. 'I want to go back. I am afraid. Take me back to the light.'

"'He tried to comfort her with gentle words and talk of his passion and her beauty, but to no effect. She shrank from the unnatural flesh of him; she panted as though the dust of tombs were in her nostrils; and at last he stood off, looking at her with a mild trouble, and then he went away, and she was sitting once more alone amid the traffic of hushed voices and moving shadows.

"'There came no night,' she told us, in a voice that quavered uncertainly, 'always that unlovely twilight only; and I sat on the grass and wept. She had no sensation of hunger or sleep in that world, the whole of her stay. She stayed in the same place, dreary and waiting, with no active hope and little fear—only a longing for the sunlight; and at last a dull pain of yearning for the rough red head and beefy texture of her human husband. A week, mind you—a week she stayed there thus, save when Tagalash would come up unheard to court her again.

"After that first time he was a more cautious lover, and sat at her feet with lowered eyes pleading with her. One answer always stilled him, and that was her cry of 'Take me back; I am afraid.'

"'You were not fashioned for a rude love,' he said to her once.

"'Ah,' she answered then, 'but there is that in me that welcomes a heavy hand and a strong arm.'

"'The others are like that,' he answered, as though speaking to himself. 'But they have no such hungry beauty as you.'

"'My beauty,' she told him, 'is a chance vessel for a mere woman's soul.'

"At last he became wistful, and seemed afraid to ask: for what he desired. 'But I can yet give to you,' he told her. 'Say what you would have. I can bring it you.'

"'Then give me back to my world,' she cried. 'Do that, and
I will thank you on my knees.'
"He sighed. 'Is that all you desire?' he said. 'Supposing I granted you that, is there nothing you would take back with you?'

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