Vrouw Grobelaar - Her Own Story

Author: Gibbon Perceval

"But what are you going to live on?" asked the Vrouw
Grobelaar. "You haven't got a farm."

"We're going to live in a town," answered Katje proudly.

I interrupted here, and tried to make the old lady understand that even schoolmasters received some money for their work, and that there would be enough for two, without frills.

She had no answer for the moment, but sat and looked at us both very thoughtfully. Still, there was no hostility in her aspect; she had not her warlike manner, and seemed engrossed rather with an estimate of the situation than of its consequences. I had looked for opposition and disparagement at least, volubly voiced and backed with a bloody example of a failure in marriage, and I know that Katje shared my misgivings. But here was something different.

"You—you are not angry?" asked Katje after a while.

The old lady started. "Angry! No, of course not. It is not altogether my affair, Katje. As time goes on, I grow nervous of stirring any broth but my own. If it were a matter of mere wisdom, and knowledge of life, and the cool head of an elder, I should not be afraid to handle you to suit my ideas; but this is a graver piece of business. Wisdom has nothing to do with it; those who are wise in their love are often foolish in their life. You've got your man, and if you want him you'll marry him in despite of the tongues of men and of angels. I know; I did it myself."

"You?" cried Katje.

"Yes, me," retorted the Vrouw Grobelaar. "Why not? Do you think that a person of sense has no feelings? When I was a girl I was nearly as big a fool as some others I could name, and got more out of it, in happiness and experience, than ever they will."

"Tell us about it," suggested Katje.

"I am telling you," snapped the old lady.

"Don't interrupt. Sit down. Don't fidget; nor giggle.

"When I was a girl," she began at last, "my father's farm was at Windhoek, and beyond the nek to the south, an easy two hours from our beacons, there lived one Kornel du Plessis. I came to know him, somehow. I saw him here and there, till I had no wish to see any but him, and we understood one another very well. Ah, Katje, girls are light things; but I truly think that in those days few Boer maids had much mind for trivial matters in their loves when once the man was found right and sound. Even at this length of time I have a thrill in remembering Kornel: a big man, and heavy, with thick shoulders, but very quick on his feet, and eyes that were gray, with pleasant little puckers at the corner. He sat far back in his saddle and lolled to the gait of the horse easily; such men make horse-masters, and masters of women. That is to say, they are masters of all.

"There was no kissing behind the kraal and whispering at windows. Neither of us had a mind for these meannesses. He came to my father's house and took food with us, and told my father the tale of his sheep and cattle, and the weight of the mortgage on his farm. Though he was not rich, he was young and keen, and my father knew well that the richest are not those who begin life with riches. There would have been no hindrance to a marriage forthwith, but for some law business in the town, of which I never understood the truth. But it concerned the land and house of Kornel, and my father would not say the last word till that should be settled.

"It dragged on for a long while, that law matter, and the conversations between Kornel and my father ran mainly in guesses about it, with much talk that was very forlorn of interest. But what did it matter to me? I had the man, and knew I could keep him; had I foreseen the future, even then I would not have cared. But for all that, I was very uneasy one hot day when Kornel rode over with a grave face and eyes that looked as though he had not slept the night before.

"My father gave him a sharp look, and pulled strongly at his pipe, like a man who prepares for ticklish business.

"'You have news?' he asked.

"'Kornel nodded, and looked at me. It was a look as though he would ask me to spare and forgive. I smiled at him, and came and stood at his side.

"'From what you have told me,' began my father, looking very wise, 'the water right may cut you off from the pastures. Is that so?'

"'No,' said Kornel; 'all that is wrong.'

"'H'm. Indeed! Then you will have to carry your north beacon farther to the east and lose the dam.'

"'Wrong again,' answered Kornel patiently.

"'Then you have won your case,' said my father, very eager to name the truth and prove his wisdom.

"'Dear me!' said Kornel;' you have no idea at all of the matter. You are quite out in your guesses. I have not won my case. I have lost it, and the land and the house and the stock along with it. I came over on a horse that is no more mine than this chair is. For all I know my very trousers may belong to the other man. There you have it. What do you say to that?'

"'Then you have nothing at all?' asked my father.

"'I have a piece of waste on the dorp road, near the spruit,' answered Kornel. 'There is a kind of hut on it. That is all. It is only two morgen' (four acres).

"My father sat shaking his head in silence for a long time, while Kornel clenched and unclenched his hands and stared at the floor and frowned. I put my hand on his shoulder, and he trembled.

"'It is an affliction,' said my father at last, 'and no doubt you know very well what you have done to deserve it. But it might be worse. You might have had a wife, and then what would you have done?'

"One is wise to honor one's parents always, but one cannot be blind. I think my father might sometimes have spoken less and done better for it.

"'We have talked about Christina yonder,' continued my father, pointing at me with the stem of his pipe. 'It is a good thing it went no further than talk.'

"'But it did,' I said quickly. 'It went much further. It went to my promise and Kornel's; and if I am ready to keep mine now, I shall not look to see him fail in his.'

"Ah! He never needed any but the smallest spur. Your true man kindles quickly. At my word he sprang up and his arm folded me. I gasped in the grip of it.

"'My promise holds,' he said, through clenched teeth.

"My father had a way of behaving like a landdrost (magistrate) at times, and now he wrinkled his forehead and smiled very wisely.

"'When one's bed is on the veld,' he said,' it is not the time to remember a promise to a girl. It is easier to find a bedfellow than a blanket sometimes. And then, I am to be considered, and I cannot suffer this kind of thing.'

"'I think you will have to manage it,' answered Kornel.

"'Do you?' said my father. 'Well, I have nothing to give you. Christina, come here to me!'

"Kornel loosed his arm and set me free, but I stayed where
I was.

"'Father,' I cried, 'I have promised Kornel!'

"'Come here!' he said again. Then, when I did not move, disobeying him for the first time in my life, his face darkened. 'Are you not coming?' he said.

"'No,' I answered, and my man's arm took me again, tight— tight, Katje.

"'Well,' said my father, 'you had better be off, the two of you. Do not come here again.'

"'We can do that much to please you,' answered Kornel, with his head very high. 'Come, Christina!'

"And I followed him from my father's house. I had not even a hat for my head.

"We were married forthwith, of course—no later than the next day,—and the day after that I rode with my man to the plot beside the dorp spruit to see our home that had to be. That was a great day for me; and to be going in gentle companionship with Kornel across the staring veld and along the empty road was a most wonderful thing, and its flavor is still a relish to my memory. I knew that he feared what we were to see—the littleness and mean poverty of it, after the spaciousness of the farm; but most of all it galled him that I should see it on this our first triumphant day. He was very gentle and most loving, but shadows grew on his face, and there was a track of worry between his brows that spurred me. I knew what I had to do, now that our fortunes were knitted, and I did it.

"The plot was a slope from the edge of the dorp to the little spruit, not fenced nor sundered in any way from the squalid brick which houses the lower end of Dopfontein. Full in face of it was the location of the Kafirs; around it and close at hand were the gross and dirty huts of the off-colors (half-castes). The house, which was in the middle of the plot, was a bulging hovel of green brick, no more stately or respectable than any of the huts round about. As our horses picked their way through the muck underfoot, and we rode down to it, the off-colors swarmed out of their burrows and grinned and pointed at us.

"Kornel helped me from my saddle, and we went together to see the inside of the house. It was very foul and broken, with the plain traces of Kafirs in each of its two rooms, and a horrid litter everywhere. As I looked round I saw Kornel straighten himself quickly, and my eyes went to his.

"'This is our home,' he said bluntly, with a twitching of the cheek.

"I nodded.

"'Perhaps,' he said in the same hard tone, as if he were awaiting an onslaught of reproach,—'perhaps I was wrong to bring you to this, but it is too late to tell me so now. It is not much—'

"I broke in and laughed. 'You will not know it when I have set it to rights,' I answered. 'It shall be a home indeed by the time I am through with it.'

"His cheek twitched yet, as though some string under the flesh were quivering with a strain.

"'It's you and me against all the evil luck in the world,' he cried, but his face was softening.

"I cowered within the arm he held out to me, and told him I was all impatience to begin the fight. And he cried on my shoulder, and I held him to me and soothed him from a spring of motherhood that broke loose in my heart.

"Within a week we were living in the place, and, Katje, I hope you will feel yet for some roof what I felt for that, with all its poorness. It was the first home of my wifehood: I loved it. I worked over it, as later I worked over the children God bestowed on me, purging it, remaking it, spending myself on it, and gilding it with the joy of the work. From the beams of the roof to the step of the door I cleansed it with my hands, marking it by its spotlessness for the habitation of white folk among the yellow people all around. Kornel did little to aid me in that—for the most part he was seeking work in the town; and even when he was at home I drove him sharply from the labor that was mine, and mine alone. The yellow people were very curious about it all, and would stand and watch me through the door till Kornel sjamboked them away; and even then some of their fat talkative women would come round with offers of help and friendship. But though we were fallen to poverty, we had not come so low as that; and few came to me a second time, and none a third.

"Still, though Kornel humbled himself and asked very little money, there was no work to be had in the dorp. No storekeeper had a use for him, and the transport agents had too many riders already. Day after day went by, and each day he came back more grim, with a duller light in those kind eyes of his and a slower twinkle.

"'You must trust in yourself,' I told him, as he sat by the table and would have it that he was not hungry.

"'I trust in you,' he answered, with a pitiable attempt at his old sparkle. 'You have proved yourself; I have not—yet, and I could do the work of three Kafirs, too.'

"The next day he came home at noon, with a swing in his gait and his fingers working.

"'I've got work,' he said, 'at last.'

"I stopped sewing and looked at him. 'Is it a white man's work?' I asked.

"'It is work,' he retorted.

"'Very well,' I said; 'but remember, we sink or soar together, and in neither case will I blame you. If you get white man's work, you shall have a white man's wife; but if you are going to do the work of Kafirs—'

"'Yes,' he said; 'and what then?'

"'In that case,' I answered, 'I shall do washing to eke it out and be a level mate for you.'

"'By God, you won't!' he cried, and his hand came down hard on the table. There was no mistaking his face: the command and the earnestness of it lighted up his eyes. I stared at him in a good deal of surprise, for though I had known it was there, this was the first I had seen of the steel strain in my man.

"'Call it Kafir work, or what you please,' he went on, with a briskness of speech that made answer impossible. 'You will keep this house and concern yourself with that only. The gaining of money is my affair. Leave it to me, therefore.'

"I cast down my eyes, knowing I must obey, but a little while after I asked him again what the work was to be.

"'Making bricks,' he answered. 'Here we have the spruit at our door and mud for the picking up. It needs only a box- mould or two, and it will be funny if I can't turn out as many good bricks in a day as three lazy Kafirs. Old Pagan, the contractor, has said he will buy them, so now it only remains to get to work.'

"As he said this, I noticed the uneasiness that kept him from meeting my eye, for in truth it was a sorry employ to put his strength to,—a dirty toil, all the dirtier for the fact that only Kafirs handled it in Dopfontein, and the pay was poor. From our door one could always see the brick- making going on along the spruit, with the mud-streaked niggers standing knee-deep in the water, packing the wet dirt into the boxes, and spilling them out to be baked in the sun or fired, as the case might be. There was too much grime and discomfort to it to be a respectable trade.

"But Kornel went to work at once, carrying down box-moulds from the contractor's yard, and stacking them in the stiff gray mud at the edge of the spruit, I went with him to see him start. He waded down over his boots, into the slow water, and plunged his arms elbow-deep into the mud.

"'Here's to an honest living,' he said, and lilted a great lump of slime into the first box and kneaded it close. Then, as he set it aside and reached for the next, he looked up to me with a smile that was all awry. My heart bled for him.

"'But there's no time to be polite,' he said, as the mud squelched into the second box. 'Here's the time to prove how a white man can work when he goes about it. So run back to the house, my kleintje, and leave me to make my fortune.'

"And forthwith he braced himself and went at that sorry work with all his fine strength. I had not the heart to stay by him; I knew that my eyes upon him were like offering him an insult, and yet I never looked at him save in love. But once or twice I glanced from the doorway, and saw him bowed still over that ruthless task, slaving doggedly, as good men do with good work.

"When the evening meal was due he came in, drenched from head to foot, and patched and lathered with the pale sticky mud; but though he was so tired that he drooped like a sick man where he stood, his face was bright again and his eyes were once more a-twinkle with hope and confidence.

"As he changed his clothes and washed himself, he talked cheerily to me through the wall, with a spirit like a boy's.

"'I've begun, at any rate,' he called out, 'and that's a great thing. If I go as far forward as I've gone back, I shall be satisfied. Where did you say the comb was?'

"And all through supper he chattered in the same vein, rejoicing in the muscles that ached with work and in his capacity to do more and bear more than the Kafirs who were his rivals.

For me, I was pleased enough and thankful to hear the heart of him thus vocal, and to mark the man I knew of old and chose to be my mate come to light in this laborer, new from his toil.

"We did not sit late that night, for, with all his elation and reawakened spirits. Kornel was weary to the honest bone of him, and swayed with sleep as he stood on his feet. He rolled into my clean, cool sheets with a grunt of utter satisfaction. 'This is comfort indeed,' he said drowsily, as I leaned over him, and he was asleep before I had answered.

"At daylight he rose and went forth to the spruit again, and there all day he labored earnestly. Each time that I looked towards him I saw his back bent and his arms plunging in the mud, while the rows of wet bricks grew longer and multiplied. I heard him whistling at it,—some English melody he had gathered long before at a waapenschauw,—with a light heart, the while he was up to his knees in the dirty water, with the mud plastered all over him.

"By and by I went down to the bank and asked him how he did. He straightened himself, grimacing humorously at the stiffness of his back, and answered me cheerily.

"'Tomorrow old Pagan will come down and pay for what I have done,' he said. I think he will be surprised at the amount. His Kafirs have no such appetite for it as I.' And he laughed.

"It was a dreadful business he had taken in hand, and work hard beyond believing. The boxes stood in a pile above the stream, and each had to be reached down as one was filled, and as soon as two were full Kornel must climb the bank to set them aside. When all were full, they had to be turned out on the level ground, and all this, as you can see, meant that he must scramble up and down in the heavy mud, taxing every spring in his poor body. Yet he toiled ceaselessly, attacking the job with a kind of light-hearted desperation that made nothing of its hardships, bringing to it a tough and unconquerable joy in the mere effort, which drove him ever like a spur.

"As I watched him delving, I thought that here a woman could render some measure of help, and as he turned from talking to me I began to empty out the boxes that were ready and stack them again on the pile. I had not yet turned out ten bricks when he saw me, and paused in his melancholy work.

"'Stop that!' he cried, and scrambled out of the spruit to where I stood. 'I suppose,' he went on, 'you would like your father to know that I had suffered you to work for me like a Kafir.'

"'Kornel!' I cried in horror.

"But he was white on the cheek-bones and breathing hard, and I could not soften him.

"'Rich man's daughter or poor man's wife,' he said, 'you are white, and must keep your station. It is my business to sell myself, not yours. Get you back to the house I have given you, and stay there.'

"And with that he picked up the soft bricks I had turned for him, and threw them one by one into the spruit.

"'Poverty and meanness and all,' he added, 'it shall not be said at your father's house that you worked for me. Nor that you lacked aught it became you to have, neither,' he added, with a quick heat of temper. 'Get to your house.'

"I slunk off, crying like a child, while he went back to the mud—and the labor.

"Next day came Pagan to pay for the work that was done. He drove up in his smart cart, and tiptoed his way daintily to the edge of the spruit where the bricks lay. He was an old man, very cleanly dressed, with hard white hair on his head and face, and a quick manner of looking from side to side like a little bird. In all his aspect there was nothing but spoke of easy wealth and the serenity of a well-ordered life; there was even that unkindly sharpness of tone and manner that is a dead-weight on the well-to-do. My husband was at work when he drove up, but he straightened his back, squared his broad shoulders, and came up from the mud, walking at the full of his height and smiling down at the rich man with half-closed eyes.

"'Daag, Heer Pagan,' he said to him, in the tone of one who needs and desires nothing, and held out his hand—mud from the elbow—with something lordly in the gesture. The rich man cocked his head quickly, in the way he had, and hung in the breeching for a moment, ere he rendered his hand to Kornel, with a reddening of the cheek above his white whisker that betrayed him, I thought, for a paltry soul.

"'I've come to see your bricks,' he said curtly, 'and to pay for 'em, if they're all right.'

"'Ah, the bricks,' said Kornel airily. 'Yes, to be sure. There they are. Go and count them, if you like, and then you can come to me at my house where the Vrouw du Plessis (which was me) will give us some coffee.'

"I was watching, you may be sure, and again I saw the wintry red swell above the white whisker, and I clenched my hands in wrath and contempt at the creature's littleness. I was sure he would have liked to sweep my man's courtesy aside, and certainly the politeness had a prick in it. He was rich, and old, and fat, with a consequence in his mien and an air that hinted he was used to deference, and Kornel was but a muddy brick-moulder. Yet there stood my man, so easy in his quiet speech, so sure of himself, so dangerous a target for contempt, that the rich man only stammered. Kornel nodded as though he understood the invitation to be accepted, and walked up to the house, leaving old Pagan to count the bricks and follow.

"I kissed him as he came in. 'You've trampled his dirty soul under your heel,' I said, 'and I love you for it. I love to see you upright and a man of purpose; whatever comes of it, I shall honor you always.'

"He kissed me and laughed. 'Nothing will happen, if we are lucky,' he said. 'There is more in John Pagan than the big stomach and the money. But we mustn't crawl to him; I'll wager he never crawled himself when he was poor.'

"I set the coffee ready, spreading the table with a fine cloth I had brought from Kornel's farm, one of the few things we had taken with us, and presently in came old Pagan. Directly I saw him I felt a doubt of him; there was a kind of surreptitious viciousness showing in his sour smile that warned me. He was like a man who is brewing an unpleasant joke.

"'Ah, Mrs. du Plessis,' he said, 'your man will have been working very hard.'

"'You know what brick-moulding is, then?' I said.

"He grinned. 'A little,' he said; 'yes, a little. There's few jobs I haven't put a hand to in my time. Work's a fine thing, when a man knows how to work.'

"'You are very right,' agreed Kornel.

"'This is good coffee,' said John Pagan, as he stirred his cup. 'In fact, it's better than the bricks.'

"'A better hand was at work on it,' said Kornel.

"'So I should judge,' answered Pagan sleekly. 'I should like another cup of this coffee, if I may trouble you, Mrs. du Plessis.'

"He laid his cup on the table and bit his nails while I filled it, glancing round at my poor room the while and smiling to himself.

"'Yes,' he said, 'I like the coffee, but I don't like the bricks. They're no good at all.'

"We both stared at him, silent and aghast, and the white- haired old man chuckled in our stricken faces.

"'What is wrong with them?' demanded Kornel at last. His face was white, but he spoke quite naturally.

"'Aha!' laughed old Pagan. 'Ye see, there's no trade, that ye can take up without a bit o' learning, not even makin' mud-bricks. The very same thing happened to me. Lord, it's past forty years ago, I turned out six hundred dozen, and had 'em thrown on my hands. It nearly broke my heart.'

"'I can understand that,' said Kornel. 'But what is wrong with my bricks?'

"Old Pagan set his cup back on the table and sat up in his chair. As he began to speak he hitched back the sleeves of his coat and moved his neck in his white collar.

"'See here!' he said. 'It's a little thing, like turning up the toe of a horseshoe, but just as essential. When ye set your full moulds out to dry, did ye set 'em on edge, to drain away the water? Ye did not? Well, that's what's wrong. They're just mud-pies-lumps o' damp dirt, that'll crumble as soon as they're dry. There's ninety dozen of 'em, by my count, and there'll not be three dozen that ye could use in any way consistent wi' conscience. Do ye take my meanin'?'

"Kornel nodded very thoughtfully.

"'Well, you'll just need to get to work again,' said the old man. 'Maybe I'm not exactly keen on greetings and invitations and the like, but you'll not be able to teach me anything on bricks. So if ye're thinking anything about the splendor o' your work, wait dll ye're master of it before you waste more thought. I'm your better as a craftsman,' he said, with a glance towards me.

"I was red all over, what with shame and sorrow, but I marked that the paltriness seemed to have gone from John Pagan as soon as he began to talk of work. He turned then to Kornel with a briskness that was not unkindly.

"'I was relying on you for bricks,' he said, 'for you can work, and that's a fact. Perhaps you can let me have a hundred dozen by Thursday, eh? I'm waitin' on them. And if you make sure of it, I'll do wi' ye what's my common custom, and that's pay half the price in advance. How's that suit?'

"Kornel rose from his chair and stammered thanks, and John
Pagan paid the money on to the table.

"'I'll be down on Thursday to see the bricks,' he said,
'and don't forget the dodge I told ye. And maybe Mrs. du
Plessis 'll be willing to give me coffee again when I come.
So good-day to ye, and mind—drain 'em!'

"When he was gone Kornel and I looked at each other and laughed emptily. Then he went out to the mud again to make ready for Thursday.

"So it was we lived for a time that was shorter than it seemed, building on the mud of our shaky fortunes a pride that our poverty could not overturn. Kornel had a saying that seemed irreligious but very true. 'There are ministers and farmers and lawyers who are rich,' he would observe, 'but there's no money in work,' I have since been won to believe that there is a flaw in the argument, but for us it was true, and bitterly true. We were never on the right side of ten shillings; we were never out of sight of the thin brink of want. That we were preserved and kept clear of disaster was due only to the toil of Kornel and my own anxious care for the spending of the money. I found out that a wife who is strong has a great trade to drive in upholding her house; and I, at any rate, was proficient in maintaining cleanliness, in buying and making food, and preserving to my home the atmosphere of happiness and welcome that anchors a man to his own place. Take it all in all, we were happy, and yet I would not pretend that there were not grim hours when we wondered if the mere living were worth all that it cost. Kornel, hard as iron always, grew lean and stooped, and there appeared in his face a kind of wild care that frightened me. From the chill upcoming of the dawn to the rising of the wind at evening he taxed himself remorselessly at the sorry work in the mud, while I scrubbed and scraped and plotted and prayed to make the meagre pay cover wants that were pared meagre enough. Yes, there were certainly times when we thought the cost too great, but, God be praised, we never thought it at the same moment, and the stronger always upheld the weaker.

"And there was never any shame in the matter. Even as we feared nothing, we were never ashamed. Never!

"One morning—, about an hour before high sun, when the dust lay thick on the road into the town that passed our land, and the neighborhood around was feverish with the fuss of the Kafirs and yellow folk, I stood for a moment at my door, looking down to where Kornel was fervently at work in the spruit. There was always traffic on the road at that hour, and something drew me to look towards it. At once I saw my father. He was riding in, dressed in his black clothes, very solemn and respectable, with his beard flowing over his chest. At the same moment he saw me, and seemed to start in his saddle and glance quickly at all about—at my poor little house, the litter that lay about, the squalor of the town-end we lived in, and the laborious bent back of my man as he squattered about in the mud. He checked his horse an instant, as though by an impulse; for my father, though I honored him, was a weak man, in whom no purpose was steadfast. I saw the wavering in his face and the uncertainty of his big pale eyes; and then, half- nodding to me as though in an embarrassment, he pushed on and entered the town. I went down and told Kornel.

"'H'm!' He stood as though in thought, looking up to me from the water. 'Your father, eh? Would you like him to come and see you?'

"I nodded.

"He laughed and climbed up the bank to me. 'So would I,' he said. 'I have a stiffness in my back that makes me inclined for anything rather than this work. Even your father.'

"We walked up to the house together, and Kornel's brow was creased with thought, while his lips smiled.

"'You see,' he said, 'we want nothing from him—nothing at all, so we can't afford to be humble. Have we any money at all?'

"'We have three shillings,' I answered, 'and I owe one shilling for food.'

"'That's not enough,' he said, shaking his head. 'You say he saw me working? We must have thirty shillings at least; we must treat him well; I can't let him off now that he has seen so much. We'll stuff him till he bulges like a rotten cask, and wishes he could make bricks as I can. I wonder if Pagan would pay me in advance for a thousand dozen. I'll go and ask him.'

"He started for the door at once, but turned and came back to me.

"'He said once he had nothing to give me,' he whispered to me. Do you grudge me this, kleintje.'

"'Not I,' I answered. 'I only wish we could do more.'

"He kissed me and was off in a moment. Pagan made no difficulty about the money. He looked at Kornel shrewdly when my man made the request, and paid at once.

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  • Reviewed by Maizy Burger  on  April 23rd, 2011

    What a lovely story.
    I am fascinated by the style of writing by Gibbon Perceval.

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