Vrouw Grobelaar - The Coward

Author: Gibbon Perceval

"After all," said the Vrouw Grobelaar weightily, "a coward is but one with keener eyes than his fellows. No young man fears a ghost till it is dark, but the coward sees the stars in the daytime, like a man at the bottom of a well, and ghosts walk all about him.

"A coward should always be a married man," she added, "You may say, Katje, that it is hard on the woman. It is what I would expect of you. But when you have experience of wifehood you will come to the knowledge that it is the man's character which counts, and it is the woman's part to make up his deficiencies. With what men learn by practicing on their wives, the world has been made.

"If you would cease to cackle in that silly fashion I would tell you of Andreas van Wyck, the coward—a tale that is known to few. Well, then."

"He was a bushveld Boer, farming cattle on good land, not a day's ride from the Tiger River. His wife, Anna, was of the de Villiers stock from over the borders of the Free State, a commandant's daughter, and the youngest of fourteen children. They were both people of a type common enough. Andreas was to all seeming just such a Burgher as a hundred others who have grown rich quietly, never heard of outside their own districts, yet as worthy as others whom every one nods to at Nachtmaal. Anna, too, was of an everyday pattern, a short plump woman, with a rosy solemn face and pleasant eyes—a sound Boer woman, who could carry out her saddle, catch her horse and mount him without help. You see, in her big family, the elders were all men, and most had seen service against the Kafirs, and a girl there won esteem not by fallals and little tripping graces, but by usefulness and courage and good fellowship. She saw Andreas first when he was visiting his mother's aunt in her neighborhood. There was shooting at a target, for a prize of an English saddle, and no one has ever said of him that he was not a wonderful shot. He carried off the prize easily, against all the Boers of those parts, and Anna's father and brothers among them. A few months later they were married.

"They drove from Anna's home to Andreas' farm on the bushveld in a Cape cart with two horses, and sat close under the hood while the veld about them was lashed with the first rains of December. It was no time for a journey by road, but in those days the country was not checkered with railway lines as it is now, and Anna had nothing to say against a trifle of hardship. For miles about them the rolling country of the Free State was veiled with a haze of rain, and the wind drove it in sheets here and there, till the horses staggered against it, and the drum of the storm on the hood of the cart was awesome and mournful. Towards afternoon, after a long, slow trek, they came down the slope towards Buys' Drift, and Andreas pulled his horses up at the edge of the water.

"The rains had swelled the river to a flood, and it ran with barely a ripple where ordinarily the bushes were clear of the water. Full a hundred and fifty yards it spanned, and as they looked, they saw it carry past a dead ox and the rags of uprooted huts.

"'We can never cross till it goes down,' said Andreas. 'I am sorry for it, but there is no choice. We must go back to your father's house.'

"Anna pressed his arm and smiled.

"'You are joking,' she said. 'You know well that I will not go back there tonight for all the floods in ten years. No girl would that valued her husband and herself.'

"'But look at the drift!' he urged.

"'It is a big head of water,' she agreed. 'I was once before upset in such a flood as this. You must head them up-stream a little, and then strike down again to the opposite bank.'

"'Not I,' he answered. 'I am not going to drown myself for a trifle of pride, nor you either. We must go back.'

"She shook her head. 'Not that!' she replied. 'Give me the reins and the whip.' Before he could resist she had taken them from his hands. 'Put your feet on our box,' she directed, 'or the water will float it away. Now then!'

"She drew the whip across the horses' quarters, and in a minute they were in the river, while Andreas sat marveling.

"'You understand that it was first necessary to move up- stream to a point in the middle of the river. She steadied the horses with a taut hold on the reins, for her young wrists were strong as iron, and spoke to them cheerily as the flood leaped against their chests, and they stood and hesitated. The rain drove in their faces viciously: Andreas, his face sheltered by the wide brim of his hat, had to rub away the water again and again in order to see; but Anna knit her brows and endured the storm gallantly, while with whip and rein and voice she pushed the team on towards the place of turning.

"The rushing of the water filled their ears, and before them, between the high banks of the Vaal, they saw only a world of brown water, streaked with white froth, hurling down upon them. It rose above the foot-board and swilled to the level of the seat. The horses, with heads lifted high, were often, for an anxious moment or two, free of the shifting bottom and swimming. A tree, blundering down- stream, struck the near wheel, and they were nearly capsized, the water rushing in over their knees. As they tilted Andreas gave a cry, and shifted in his place. Anna called to her horses and knit her brows.

"At last it was time to humor them around, and this, as I need not tell you, is the risky business in crossing a flooded drift. With somewhat of a draw on the near rein, Anna checked the team, and then, prodding with her whip, headed the horses over and started them. They floundered and splashed, and Andreas half rose from his seat, with lips clenched on a cry. The traces tightened under the water, a horse stumbled and vanished for a moment, and, as the cart tilted sickeningly, the man, ashen-faced and strung, leaped from it and was whirled away.

"The water took him under, drew him gasping over the bottom, and spat him up again to swim desperately. His head was down-stream, and, as there was a sharp bend half a mile below, he had no extraordinary difficulty in bringing his carcass to shore. He lay for a minute among the bushes, and then ran back to see what had become of the cart, the horses, and his wife. He found them ashore, safe and waiting for him, and Anna wringing the wet from her hair as she stood beside the horses' heads.

"'You are not hurt?' she asked, before he could speak. Her face was grave and flushed, her voice very quiet and orderly.

"'No.' he said.

"'Ah!' she said, and climbed again into the cart, and made room for him in the place of the driver.

"That was how he discovered himself to his wife. In that one event of their wedding-day he revealed to Anna what was a secret from all the world—perhaps even from himself. He was a coward, the thing Anna had never known yet of any man—never thought enough upon to learn how little it may really matter or how greatly it may ruin a character. When her brothers, having drunk too much at a waapenschauw, wished to make a quarrel quickly, they called their man a coward. But for her it had been like saying he was a devil— a futile thing that was only offensive by reason of its intention. And now she was married to a coward, and must learn the ways of it.

"They spoke no more of the matter. Anna shrank from a reference to it. She could not find a word to fit the subject that did not seem an attack on the man with whom she must spend her life. They settled down to their business of living together very quietly, and I think the commandant's daughter did no braver thing than when she recognized the void in her husband, and then, holding it loathsome and unforgivable, passed it over and put it from her mind out of mere loyalty to him.

"The years went past at their usual pace, and there occurred nothing to ear-mark any hour and make it memorable, till the Kafirs across the Tiger River rose. I do not remember what men said the rising was about. Probably their chief was wearied with peace and drunkenness and wanted change; but anyhow the commando that was called out to go and shoot the tribe into order included Andreas, the respected Burgher and famous shot. The feldkornet rode round and left the summons at his house, and he read it to Anna.

"'Now I shall get some real shooting,' he said, with bright eyes.

"She looked at him carefully, and noted that he lifted down his rifle with the gaiety of a boy who goes hunting. It brought a warmth to her heart that she dared not trust.

"'It is a pity you should go before the calves are weaned,' she said.

"'Pooh! You can see to them,' he answered.

"'But you could so easily buy a substitute. It would even be cheaper to send a substitute,' she urged half-heartedly.

"You see she had no faith at all in his courage. The years she had lived with him had brought forth nothing to undo the impression he had left in her mind when he sprang from the cart and abandoned her in the middle of the Vaal River, and this emergency had awakened all her old fear lest he should be proclaimed a coward before the men of his world.

"'I dare say it would be cheaper and better in every way,' he answered with some irritation. 'But for all that I am going. This is a war, the first I have known, and I am not going to miss the chance. So you had better get my gear ready!'

"With that he commenced to tear up rags and to oil and clean his rifle.

"She bade him adieu next day and saw him canter off with some doubt. He had shown no hesitation at all in this matter. From the time of the coming of the summons he had been all eagerness and interest. It might have led another to think she had been wrong, that the man who feared water feared nothing else; but Anna knew well, from a hundred small signs, that her husband had no stability of valor in him, that he was and would remain—a coward.

"Next day the fighting had commenced, and Anna, working serenely about her house, soon had news of it. There was a promise of interest in this little war from the start. The commando, under Commandant Jan Wepener, had made a quick move and thrust forward to the crown of the little hills that overlook the Tiger River and the flat land beyond it, which was the home of the tribe. Here they made their laager, and it was plain that the fighting would consist either of descents by the Burghers on the kraals, or of attacks by the Kafirs upon the hills. Either way, there must be some close meetings and hardy hewing, a true and searching test for good men. The young Burgher that told her of it, sitting upon his horse at the door as though he were too hurried and too warlike to dismount and enter, rejoiced noisily at the prospect of coming to grips.

"Anna puckered her brows. 'It is not the way to fight,' she said doubtfully. 'A bush and a rifle and a range of six hundred yards is what beat the Basutos.'

"'Pooh!' laughed the young Burgher. 'You say that because your husband shoots so well, and you want him to be marked for good fighting.'

"She frowned a little, inwardly accusing herself of this same meaning. She would gladly have put these thoughts from her, for brave folk, whether men or women, have commonly but one face, and she hated to show friendship to her husband and harbor distrust of him in her bosom. When the young Burgher at last rode away, galloping uselessly to seem what he wished to be—a wild person of sudden habits— she sat on the stoop for a while and thought deeply. And she sighed, as though pondering brought her no decision, and went once more about her work, always with an eye cocked to the window to watch for any rider coming back from the laager with news of affairs.

"But there was a shyness on both sides for a week. The Kafirs had not yet ripened their minds to an attack on the hills, nor had the Burghers quite sloughed their custom of orderliness and respect for human life. There was a little shooting, mostly at the landscape, by those whose trigger- fingers itched; but at last a man coming back with a hole in his shoulder to be doctored and admired halted at the door and told of a fight.

"He sat in a long chair and told about the pain in his shoulder, and opened his shirt to show the wound. Anna leaned against the door-post and heard him. Outside his brown pony was rattling the rings of the bit and switching at flies, and she perceived the faint smell of the sweat- stained saddlery and the horse-odour she knew so well. Before her, the tall grimy man, with bandages looped about him, his pleasant face a little yellow from the loss of blood, babbled boastfully. It was a scene she was familiar with, for of old on the Free State border the Burghers and the Basutos were forever jostling one another, and—I told you her father was a commandant!

"'But tell me about the battle,' she urged.

"'Allemachtag!' exclaimed the wounded man. 'But that was a fight! It was night, you know, about an hour after the dying of the moon, and there was a spit of rain and some little wind. The commandant was very wakeful, I can tell you, and he had us all out from under the wagons, though it was very cold, and sent us out to the ridge above the drift. And there we lay in the long grass among the bushes on our rifles, while the feldkornet crawled to and fro behind us on his belly and cursed those who were talking. I didn't talk—I know too much about war. But your man did. I heard him, and the feldkornet swore at him in a whisper.'

"'What was he saying?' Anna asked quickly.

"'Oh, dreadful things. He called him a dirty takhaar with a hair-hung tongue, and—'

"'No, no!' cried Anna impatiently. 'What did my husband say, I mean? What was he talking about when the feldkornet stopped him?'

"'Oh, he was just saying that it would be worth turning out into the cold if only the Kafirs would come. And then he cried out, 'What's that moving?' and the feldkornet crawled up and cursed him.'

"'Go on about the fight,' said Anna, looking from him, that he might not see what spoke in her eyes.

"'Yes. Well, I was just getting nicely to sleep, when somebody down on my left began firing. Then I saw down the hill, the flashes of guns, and soon I could hear great lumps of pot-leg screaming through the air. They are firing a lot of pot-leg, those Kafirs. I fired at a flash that came out pretty regularly, and by and by it ceased to flash. Then, as I rose on my knees, a great knob of pot-leg hit me in the shoulder, and I cried out and fell down. Your husband came to me and helped me to go back to the rocks, and soon after all the shooting stopped. The Burghers found three dead Kafirs in the morning, so we won.'

"'You were very brave,' said Anna.

"'Yes, wasn't I? And so was your husband, I believe,' said the wounded man. 'I couldn't see him, but I've no doubt he was. They'll try to rush the drift again tonight.'

"'What makes you think so?' Anna demanded, starting.

"'Oh, they've been gathering for some days,' answered the other. 'It's what they are trying to do. You see there are no farms to plunder on the other side of the river, so they must cross.'

"'I see,' said Anna slowly.

"When he was ready, she helped the wounded man again to his saddle, and saw him away, then turned, with the light of a swift resolution in her eyes, to the task of getting ready to go to Andreas. The river and the hills were but a short six hours from her farm, and on a horse she could have ridden it in less. But it was no wish of hers to bring any slur upon her husband, so she prepared to go to him in a cart, taking shirts and shoes and tobacco, like a dutiful wife visiting her husband on commando. And for a purpose she took no trouble to name to herself, she put in her pocket a little pug-nosed revolver which Andreas had once bought, played with for a while, and then forgotten.

"A Kafir came with her, to see to the horses and so on, for she was to travel in no other manner than that in which Burghers' wives travel every day; but once clear of the farm she took the reins and the whip to herself, and drove swiftly, pushing the team anxiously along the way. So well did she guide her path, that by evening they were slipping down the road towards the drift of the Tiger River, and when the light of day began to be mottled with night, they had crossed the drift and were passing up the right bank. When at length the darkness came, they were at the foot of the hills which the commando held.

"Here Anna alighted, and left the 'boy' to outspan and watch the cart. In a basket on her arm she had a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of medicine for rheumatism, that would make her coming seemly, and with the little revolver in her pocket knocking against her knee at every step, she faced the dark and the empty veld, and began the ascent of the hill alone. She was come to be a spur to her husband. This she knew clearly enough, yet as she went along, with the thin wind of the night on her forehead, she wasted no thoughts, but bent herself to the business of finding the laager and coming to Andreas. About her were the sombre hills, that are, in fact, mere bushy kopjes, but in the darkness, and to one alone, portentous and devious mountains. Veld-bred as she was, the business of path- finding was with her an instinct, like that of throwing up your hand to guard your eyes when sparks spout from the fire. Yet in an hour she lost herself utterly.

"She strove here and there, practicing all the tricks of the hunter to avoid moving in a circle, and so on. She wrenched her skirts through bushes that seemed to have hands. She plunged over stones that were noisy and ragged underfoot; she tumbled in ant-bear holes and bruised herself on ant-hills. And after a long time she sat down and listened—listened patiently for the alarm of firing to beckon a course to her. And there she waited, her basket on her knee, her arms folded across it, for all the world like a quiet woman in church, with no tremors, but only a mild and enduring expectancy.

"It came at last, a tempest of shooting that seemed all round her. Below her, and to her left, there were splashes of white flame. The fighter's daughter knew at once that these were from Kafir guns. Overhead, the rip-rip-rip of the Burghers' rifles pattered like rain on a roof, like hoofs on a road. And all was near at hand. Despite her endeavors, she had come nearly the whole way round the hill, and was now barely outside the cross-fire. She stood up, shaking her skirts into order, and took in the position. It was a bad one, but it pointed the way to Andreas, and, with a pat to her tumbled clothes she settled the bottles safely again in the basket and resumed her climbing.

"She thrust along through the bushes, while the clatter of the rifles grew nearer, and presently there was a flick— like a frog diving into mud—close by her feet, and she knew there were bullets coming her way. Flick-plop! It came again and again and again.

"'Some one sees me moving and is shooting at me,' said Anna to herself, and stopped to rest where a rock gave cover. The bullets, lobbing like pellets tossed from a window, came singing down towards her, clicking into the bushes, while below she could see the progress of the battle written in leaping dots of fire.

The Kafirs were spreading among the boulders—so much could be read from the growing breadth of the line of their fire, and Anna was quick to grasp the meaning of this movement. They were preparing to rush the hill, as of old the Basutos had done. The Kafirs with guns were being sent out to the flanks of the line to keep up a fire while the centre went forward with the assegais. It was an old manoeuvre; she had heard her brothers talk of it many times, and also—she remembered it now—of the counter-trick to meet it. There must be bush at hand, to set fire to, that the advance may be seen as soon as it forms and withered with musketry.

"Regardless of that deft rifleman among the Burghers who continued to drop his bullets about her, Anna took her basket again on her arm, came forth from her rock, and resumed the climb. She was obliged to make a good deal of noise, for it was too dark and uncomfortable to enable her to choose her steps well, Up above, the Burghers must have heard her plainly, though none but a keen eye would pick the blackness of her shape from the bosom of the night. The summit and the foot of the hill were alive with the spitting of the guns, and all the while the unknown sharpshooter searched about her for her life with clever plunging shots that flicked the dirt up. One bullet whisked through a piece of her skirt.

"'Now, I wonder if it can be Andreas who shoots so neatly,' said Anna, half-smiling to herself. 'He would be surprised if he knew what he is shooting at. Dear me, this is a very long and tiresome hill.'

"It was almost at that moment that she heard it—the beginning of the rush. There came up the hill, like a slow and solemn drum-music, the droning war-song of the Kafirs as they moved forward in face of the fire. It was an awful thing to hear, that bloody rhythm booming through the dome of the night. It is a song I have heard in the daytime, for a show, and it rings like heavy metal. Anna straightened herself and looked about her; there was nothing else for it but that she must start a fire, ere the battle-line swept up and on to the laager. It would draw more shooting upon her; but that gave her no pause. She had matches in her pocket, and fumbled about her and found a little thorn-bush that crackled while it tore her naked hands. Crouching by it, she dragged a bunch of the matches across the side of the box,—they spluttered and flamed, and she thrust them into the bush. It took light slowly, for there were yet the dregs of sap in it; but as it lighted, the deft rifleman squirted bullet after bullet all around her, aiming on the weakling flame she nursed with her bleeding hands.

"But for this she had no care at all. She had ceased to perceive it. Sheltering the place with her body, she drew out more matches, tore up grass, and built the little flame to a blaze that promised to hold and grow. As it cracked among the twigs, she wrenched the bush from the ground and ran forward with it upheld.

"'Burghers, Burghers!' she screamed. 'Pas op! The Kafirs are coming up the hill!'

"And whirling it widely she flung the burning bush from her with all her force, and watched its fire spread in the grass where it fell. Then she, too, fell down, and lay among the rocks and plants, scarcely breathing.

"Up above, the old commandant, peering under the pent of his hand, saw the torch waved and the figure that flung it.

"'Allemachtag!' he cried. 'It's the Vrouw van Wyck!'

"The next instant he was shouting, 'And here come the
Kafirs! Shoot, Burghers, shoot straight and hard.'

"Where she lay, near the fire that now spread across the flank of the hill in broad bands among the dry grass and withered bushes, the Vrouw van Wyck heard that last cry and lifted her head as a torrent of shooting answered it. The Kafirs and the Burghers were at grips, and it seemed that all around her the night rustled with secret men that slunk about. There was great danger to her at last, for either in going forward or going back she might fall into the hands of the Kafirs, and—oh, you can never tell what that may mean! At the best and choicest it is death, but at the worst it is torment with loathly outrage, the torment and the degradation of Sheol. Anna knew that, knew it well and feared it. That daunted her, and as the thought grew clearer in her mind, dread gripped her, and she huddled among the stones with ears alert and a heart that clacked as it beat.

"Noises threatened her, and to them, the casual noises of the night, she gave ear anxiously, while above her the fight raged direfully and all unheard. At one time she truly saw naked Kafirs go up the hill,—the light of the fire glinted on the points of their assegais and threw a dull gleam on the muscle-rippled skin of them. Next, stones falling made her start, and ere this alarm was passed she heard the unmistakable clatter of shod feet among the boulders, and—plain and loud—an oath as some man stumbled. He was already to be seen, vaguely; then he was near at hand, coming upon her.

"'Now, what in God's name is this?' she cried, and rose.
In her hand was the little blunt-nosed revolver.

"The man ran through a bush towards her, 'Anna,' he cried,
'Anna!'

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