Vrouw Grobelaar - The Sacrifice

Author: Gibbon Perceval

"Do not think," said the Vrouw Grobelaar, looking at me with a hard unwinking eye, "that idle men should have pretty wives. Though Katje will lose that poppy red-and- white when she begins to grow fat. Still—"

Katje made an observation.

"Her mother," pursued the Vrouw Grobelaar, still holding me fixed, "spent seventeen years in one room, because she could not go through the door; and when she died they took the roof on and hoisted her out like a bullock from a well. But as I was saying, it is not well that idle men—those with leisure for their littlenesses, like schoolmasters and doctors and Predikants should have pretty wives, or they tend to waste themselves. A man with real work and money matters and the governing of cattle and land and Kafirs to fill his day, for such a one it is very well. Her prettiness is an interval, like the drink he takes in the noonday. But for an idle man it becomes the air he breathes. He is all-dependent on it, and it is a small and breakable thing.

"Look how men have been wrecked upon a morsel of pink-and- white, how strong brains have scattered like seed from a burst pod for a trifle of hunger in a pair of eyes! I remember many such cases which would make you stare for the foolishness of men and the worthlessness of some women. There was the Heer Mostert, Predikant at Dopfontein, who fell to blasphemy and witchcraft when his wife Paula was sick and muttered emptily among her pillows."

The old lady shifted in her wide chair and took her eyes from me at last.

"She was pretty, if you like," she said. "A tall girl, with a small red mouth, and hair that swathed her head like coils of bronze. The Predikant, who had more fire in him than a minister should have, and more fullness of blood than is good for any man, spent the half of his life in the joy of being near to her. She was full in the face and slow with a sleek languor, but on his coming there was to see a quickness of welcome spread itself in her. She would flush warmly, and her eyes would cry to him. Their love glowed between them; they were children together in that mighty bond. So when a spring that came down with chill rains smote Paula with a fever, and laid her weakly on her bed, the Predikant was a widower already, and walked with a face white and hard, drawn suddenly into new lines of pain and fear.

"Women are strange in sickness. Some are infants, greatly needing caresses and the neighborhood of one tender and familiar. Others grow bitter, with an unwonted spite and temper, venting their ill-ease on all about them. But after the first, Paula was neither of these. The sense of things left her, and she lay on her bed with wide eyes that saw nothing and spoke brokenly about babies. For she had none. The doctor, a man of much brisk kindness, whose face was grown to a cheerful shape, frowned as he bent above her and questioned her heart and pulse. Paula was very ill, and as he looked up he saw the Predikant, tall and still, standing at the foot of the bed, gazing on the girl's face that gave no gaze back; and there was little he could say.

"'Speak to her,' he told him.

"The Predikant kneeled down beside her, and took her hand, that pinched and plucked upon the quilt, into his.

"'Paula!' he said gently. 'Wife!' and oh! the yearning that shivered nakedly in his voice.

"'Little hands,' moaned Paula weakly—'little hands beating on my breasts. Little weak hands; oh, so little and weak!'

"The Predikant bowed his head, and the doctor saw his shoulders bunch in a spasm of grief.

"'Paula!' he called again. 'Paula, dear. It is I—John.
Don't you know John, Paula? Won't you answer me, dear?'

"With eyes shut tight, he lifted a face of passionate prayer.

"'Say daddy!' said Paula, crooning faintly. 'Say daddy.'

"The doctor passed his arm across the Predikant.

"'Come away,' he said gently. 'This does no good. Come away, now. There is plenty of hope.'

"He led him outside, rocking like a sightless man. When he sat down on the edge of the stoop, he stared straight before him for a little while, fingering a button on his coat till it broke off. Then he flung it from him and laughed—laughed a long quiet laugh that had no tincture of wildness.

"'Look here,' said the doctor, 'unless you go and lie down, you'll not be fit to help me with Paula when I need you. Lie down or work, whichever you please. But one or the other, my man.'

"'Suppose,' said the Predikant quietly—'suppose I go and pray?'

"'That'll do capitally,' answered the doctor. 'But pray hard, mind. It might even do some good. There's nothing certain in these cases.'

"'I have just been thinking that,' said the Predikant, turning to him with a face full of doubt. But we can try everything, at any rate.'

"'We will, too,' said the doctor cheerfully; and then the Predikant passed to his room to pour out the soul that was in him in prayer for the life of Paula.

"It was a great battle the doctor fought in the dark room in which she lay. When late that night the Predikant, his face dull white in the ominous gloom, came again to the rail at the foot of the bed, his hand fell on something soft that hung there. It was Paula's long bronze hair they had cut off for coolness to her head.

"The doctor did not wait for the question.

"'There will be a crisis before day,' he said.

"'What does that mean?' asked the other. The doctor explained that Paula would rise, as it were, to the crest of a steep hill, whence she would go down to life or death as God should please.

"'But what can we do?' demanded the Predikant.

"'Very little,' replied the doctor. 'Beyond the care I am giving her now, the thing is out of our hands. We can only look on and hope. There is always hope.'

"'And always hope betrayed,' said the Predikant. 'But is she worse now than she was this afternoon when she babbled of the little hands?'

"'Yes,' answered the doctor.

"'But I prayed,' said the Predikant, with a faint note of argument and question.

"'Quite right, too,' replied the doctor.' Go and pray again,' he suggested.

"The Predikant shook his head.' It is wasting time,' he whispered, and turned to tiptoe out. But at the door he turned and crept back again.

"'It is my wife, you see,' he said mildly—'my wife, so if one thing fails we must try another. You see?'

"The doctor nodded soothingly, and the Predikant crept out again.

"The doctor sat beside the bed and watched the sick woman, and heard her weak murmur of children born in the dreams of fever. It was a still night, cool, and hung with a white glory of stars, and the point at which life and death should meet and choose drew quickly near.

There was this and that to do, small offices that a woman should serve; but the doctor had ordered the women away and did them himself. He was a large man, who continually fell off when he mounted a horse, but in a sick-room he was extraordinarily deft, and trod velvet footed. So in the business of leading Paula to the point where God would relieve him time went fast, and presently he knew the minute was at hand.

"He was sitting, intent and strung, when he heard from the garden outside the house a bell tinkle lightly. He frowned, for it was no time for noises; but it tinkled again and yet again, louder and more insistent, while a change grew visibly on the face of the sick woman, and he knew that the issue was stirring in the womb of circumstance. Then, brazenly, the bell rang out, and with an oath on his breath he rose and slipped soundlessly from the room.

"When he reached the garden all was still, and he loosed his malediction upon the night air. But even as he turned to go back the bell fluttered near at hand, and he dived among the bushes to silence it He nearly fell over one that kneeled between two big shrubs and wagged a little ram bell.

"'What in hell is this?' demanded the doctor fiercely, seizing the bell.

"'It is me,' answered a voice, and the Predikant rose to his feet. 'Be careful where you tread. There are things lying about your feet you had better not touch. Has it done her any good?'

"'You stricken fool!' cried the doctor, 'do you know no better than to go rattling your blasted bells about the place tonight? You're mad, my man—mad and inconvenient.'

"'But is she better?' persisted the Predikant.

"'I'll tell you in ten minutes.' replied the doctor. 'But if you make any more noise you'll kill her, mind that.'

"The Predikant went with him to the stoop, and stayed there while the doctor returned to the bedside. At the end of an interval he was out again, and took the husband by the arm.

"'It's over,' he said. 'She's doing finely. Sleeping like a child. You can thank God now, Mynheer Mostert.'

"The Predikant stared at him dumbly.

"'Thank God, did you say?' he asked at last.

"'And me,' answered the doctor, smiling.

"'I do thank you,' answered the Predikant. 'I do thank you from my heart, doctor. But for the rest—'

"And here, with a voice as even as one who speaks on the traffic of every day, with a calm face, he poured forth an awful, a soul-wracking blasphemy.

"'Here!' cried the doctor, startled. 'Draw the line somewhere, Predikant. That sort of thing won't do at all, you know.'

"'Now let me see my wife,' said the Predikant; and after a while, when he had warned him very solemnly on the need for silence, the doctor took him in and showed him Paula, thin and shorn, sleeping with level breath. The Predikant looked on her with parted lips and clenched hands, and when he was outside again he turned to the doctor.

"' I value my soul,' he said simply. 'But it is worth it.'

"'I haven't a notion what you are gibbering about,' answered the doctor, who had a glass in his hand. 'But there's long sleep and a dream killer in this tumbler, and you've to drink it.'

"'I need nothing,' said the Predikant, but at the doctor's urgency he drank the dose, and was soon in his bed and sleeping.

"Next day, when he was let in to Paula's bedside, she smiled and murmured at him, and nodded weakly when he spoke. The doctor warned him about noise.

"'We've won her back,' he explained, 'and she's going to do well. But she has had a hard time, and there's no denying she is very weak and ill. So if you go back to your bell— ringing or any of those games you'll undo everything. She's to be kept quiet, do you hear?'

"'I hear,' answered the Predikant. 'There shall be stillness. Not that it matters for all your words, but there shall be stillness.'

"'I warn you,' retorted the doctor seriously, 'that it matters very much. You're off your axle, my friend, and I shall have to doctor you. But if I hear of any foolishness, Predikant or no Predikant, I'll have you locked up as sure as your name's Mostert.'

"He left him there, and started through the garden to his cart that stood in the road. On his way he stubbed his foot against something that lay on the earth—a great metal cup. He picked it up.

"'I am not a heathen,' he said, as he brought it to the Predikant, 'and therefore a Communion-cup is no more to me than a sardine tin, when it is out of its place. I don't want to know what you were doing out here the other night, my friend; but you had better put this back in the Kerk before somebody misses it.'

"The Predikant took it from him, but said nothing.

"'And look here,' went on the doctor, 'it was my skill and knowledge that saved your wife. Nothing else. Good-day.'

"As he drove off, he saw the Predikant still standing on the stoop, the great cup, stained here and there with earth, in his hand.

"From that hour Paula mended swiftly. Even the doctor was surprised at the manner in which health sped back to her, and the young roses returned to her cheeks.

"'There's more than medicine in this,' he said one day. 'Do you know what it is, Predikant?'

"'Yes,' said the Predikant.

"'You do, eh? Well, it's clean young blood, my friend, and nothing else,' answered the doctor, watching him with a slight frown of shrewdness.

"The Predikant said nothing. For days there had been a kind of gloom on him, lit by a savage satisfaction in the betterment of his wife. His manner was like a midnight, in which a veld-fire glows far off. He had grown thinner, and his face was lean and gray, while in his eyes smouldered a spark that had no relation to joy or triumph.

"'Clean young blood,' repeated the doctor. 'No miracles, if you please.' He thought, you see, he had divined the Predikant's secret.

'I'm a man of science,' he went on, 'and when I come across a miracle I'll shut up shop.'

"Paula, from her pillows, heard them with a little wonder, and she was not slow to see the trouble and change in her husband's haunted face. So that night, when he came to say good-night to her, she drew his hand down to her breast, and searched for the seed of his woe.

"'You look so thin and ill, my dear,' she said gently. 'You have worried too much over me. You have paid too great a price for your wife.'

"She felt him tremble between her arms.

"'A great one,' he answered, 'but not too great.'

"'Not?' she smiled restfully, as he lifted his face from her bosom and looked into her eyes.

"'Never too great a price for you,' he said. 'Never that.'

"'My love!' she answered, and for a while they were silent together.

"Then she stirred. 'Do you know, John,' she said, 'that you and I have not prayed together since first this sickness took me? Shall we thank God together, now that He has willed to leave us our companionship for yet a space?'

"'No!' he said quietly.

"'Dear!' She was surprised. 'I was asking you to thank God with me.'

"He nodded. 'I heard you, but it serves no purpose. God forgot us, Paula.'

"His eyes were like coals gleaming hotly.

"'I prayed,' he cried, 'and yet you slipped farther from me and nearer the grave. I strewed my soul in supplication, and there was talk of winding-sheets. And then, in the keen hour of decision, when you tilted in the balance, I sought elsewhere for aid; and while I defiled all holiness, ere yet I had finished the business, comes to me that doctor and tells me all is well. What think you of that, Paula?'

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