Olive Schreiner's
The Story of an African Farm

Chapter 1.IV. Blessed is He That Believeth.

Bonaparte Blenkins sat on the side of the bed. He had wonderfully revived since the day before, held his head high, talked in a full sonorous voice, and ate greedily of all the viands offered him. At his side was a basin of soup, from which he took a deep draught now and again as he watched the fingers of the German, who sat on the mud floor mending the bottom of a chair.

Presently he looked out, where, in the afternoon sunshine, a few half-grown ostriches might be seen wandering listlessly about, and then he looked in again at the little whitewashed room, and at Lyndall, who sat in the doorway looking at a book. Then he raised his chin and tried to adjust an imaginary shirt-collar. Finding none, he smoothed the little grey fringe at the back of his head, and began:

"You are a student of history, I perceive, my friend, from the study of these volumes that lie scattered about this apartment; this fact has been made evident to me."

"Well–a little–perhaps–it may be," said the German meekly.

"Being a student of history then," said Bonaparte, raising himself loftily, "you will doubtless have heard of my great, of my celebrated kinsman, Napoleon Bonaparte?"

"Yes, yes," said the German, looking up.

"I, sir," said Bonaparte, "was born at this hour, on an April afternoon, three-and-fifty years ago. The nurse, sir–she was the same who attended when the Duke of Sutherland was born–brought me to my mother. 'There is only one name for this child,' she said: 'he has the nose of his great kinsman;' and so Bonaparte Blenkins became my name–Bonaparte Blenkins. Yes, sir," said Bonaparte, "there is a stream on my maternal side that connects me with a stream on his maternal side."

The German made a sound of astonishment.

"The connection," said Bonaparte, "is one which could not be easily comprehended by one unaccustomed to the study of aristocratic pedigrees; but the connection is close."

"Is it possible!" said the German, pausing in his work with much interest and astonishment. "Napoleon an Irishman!"

"Yes," said Bonaparte, "on the mother's side, and that is how we are related. There wasn't a man to beat him," said Bonaparte, stretching himself–"not a man except the Duke of Wellington. And it's a strange coincidence," added Bonaparte, bending forward, "but he was a connection of mine. His nephew, the Duke of Wellington's nephew, married a cousin of mine. She was a woman! See her at one of the court balls–amber satin– daisies in her hair. Worth going a hundred miles to look at her! Often seen her there myself, sir!"

The German moved the leather thongs in and out, and thought of the strange vicissitudes of human life, which might bring the kinsman of dukes and emperors to his humble room.

Bonaparte appeared lost among old memories.

"Ah, that Duke of Wellington's nephew!" he broke forth suddenly; "many's the joke I've had with him. Often came to visit me at Bonaparte Hall. Grand place I had then–park, conservatory, servants. He had only one fault, that Duke of Wellington's nephew," said Bonaparte, observing that the German was deeply interested in every word, "He was a coward–what you might call a coward. You've never been in Russia, I suppose?" said Bonaparte, fixing his crosswise looking eyes on the German's face.

"No, no," said the old man humbly. "France, England, Germany, a little in this country; it is all I have travelled."

"I, my friend," said Bonaparte, "I have been in every country in the world, and speak every civilised language, excepting only Dutch and German. I wrote a book of my travels–noteworthy incidents. Publisher got it– cheated me out of it. Great rascals those publishers! Upon one occasion the Duke of Wellington's nephew and I were travelling in Russia. All of a sudden one of the horses dropped down dead as a doornail. There we were– cold night–snow four feet thick–great forest–one horse not being able to move the sledge–night coming on–wolves.

"'Spree!' says the Duke of Wellington's nephew.

"'Spree, do you call it? says I. 'Look out.'

"There, sticking out under a bush, was nothing less than the nose of a bear. The Duke of Wellington's nephew was up a tree like a shot; I stood quietly on the ground, as cool as I am at this moment, loaded my gun, and climbed up the tree. There was only one bough.

"'Bon,' said the Duke of Wellington's nephew, 'you'd better sit in front.'

"'All right,' said I; 'but keep your gun ready. There are more coming.' He'd got his face buried in my back.

"'How many are there?' said he.

"'Four,' said I.

"'How many are there now?' said he.

"'Eight,' said I.

"'How many are there now?' said he.

"'Ten,' said I.

"'Ten! ten!' said he; and down goes his gun.

"'Wallie,' I said, 'what have you done? We're dead men now.'

"'Bon, my old fellow,' said he, 'I couldn't help it; my hands trembled so!'

"'Wall,' I said, turning round and seizing his hand, 'Wallie, my dear lad, good-bye. I'm not afraid to die. My legs are long–they hang down–the first bear that comes and I don't hit him, off goes my foot. When he takes it I shall give you my gun and go. You may yet be saved; but tell, oh, tell Mary Ann that I thought of her, that I prayed for her.'

"'Good-bye, old fellow,' said he.

"'God bless you,' said I.

"By this time the bears were sitting in a circle all around the tree. Yes," said Bonaparte impressively, fixing his eyes on the German, "a regular, exact, circle. The marks of their tails were left in the snow, and I measured it afterward; a drawing-master couldn't have done it better. It was that saved me. If they'd rushed on me at once, poor old Bon would never have been here to tell this story. But they came on, sir, systematically, one by one. All the rest sat on their tails and waited. The first fellow came up, and I shot him; the second fellow–I shot him; the third–I shot him. At last the tenth came; he was the biggest of all– the leader, you may say.

"'Wall,' I said, 'give me your hand. My fingers are stiff with the cold; there is only one bullet left. I shall miss him. While he is eating me you get down and take your gun; and live, dear friend, live to remember the man who gave his life for you!' By that time the bear was at me. I felt his paw on my trousers.

"'Oh, Bonnie! Bonnie!' said the Duke of Wellington's nephew. But I just took my gun and put the muzzle to the bear's ear–over he fell–dead!"

Bonaparte Blenkins waited to observe what effect his story had made. Then he took out a dirty white handkerchief and stroked his forehead, and more especially his eyes.

"It always affects me to relate that adventure," he remarked, returning the handkerchief to his pocket. "Ingratitude–base, vile ingratitude–is recalled by it! That man, that man, who but for me would have perished in the pathless wilds of Russia, that man in the hour of my adversity forsook me." The German looked up. "Yes," said Bonaparte, "I had money, I had lands; I said to my wife: 'There is Africa, a struggling country; they want capital; they want men of talent; they want men of ability to open up that land. Let us go.'

"I bought eight thousand pounds' worth of machinery–winnowing, plowing, reaping machines; I loaded a ship with them. Next steamer I came out– wife, children, all. Got to the Cape. Where is the ship with the things? Lost–gone to the bottom! And the box with the money? Lost–nothing saved!

"My wife wrote to the Duke of Wellington's nephew; I didn't wish her to; she did it without my knowledge.

"What did the man whose life I saved do? Did he send me thirty thousand pounds? say, 'Bonaparte, my brother, here is a crumb?' No; he sent me nothing.

"My wife said, 'Write.' I said, 'Mary Ann, NO. While these hands have power to work, NO. While this frame has power to endure, NO. Never shall it be said that Bonaparte Blenkins asked of any man.'"

The man's noble independence touched the German.

"Your case is hard; yes, that is hard," said the German, shaking his head.

Bonaparte took another draught of the soup, leaned back against the pillows, and sighed deeply.

"I think," he said after a while, rousing himself, "I shall now wander in the benign air, and taste the gentle cool of evening. The stiffness hovers over me yet; exercise is beneficial."

So saying, he adjusted his hat carefully on the bald crown of his head, and moved to the door. After he had gone the German sighed again over his work:

"Ah, Lord! So it is! Ah!"

He thought of the ingratitude of the world.

"Uncle Otto," said the child in the doorway, "did you ever hear of ten bears sitting on their tails in a circle?"

"Well, not of ten exactly: but bears do attack travellers every day. It is nothing unheard of," said the German. "A man of such courage, too! Terrible experience that!"

"And how do we know that the story is true, Uncle Otto?"

The German's ire was roused.

"That is what I do hate!" he cried. "Know that is true! How do you know that anything is true? Because you are told so. If we begin to question everything–proof, proof, proof, what will we have to believe left? How do you know the angel opened the prison door for Peter, except that Peter said so? How do you know that God talked to Moses, except that Moses wrote it? That is what I hate!"

The girl knit her brows. Perhaps her thoughts made a longer journey than the German dreamed of; for, mark you, the old dream little how their words and lives are texts and studies to the generation that shall succeed them. Not what we are taught, but what we see, makes us, and the child gathers the food on which the adult feeds to the end.

When the German looked up next there was a look of supreme satisfaction in the little mouth and the beautiful eyes.

"What dost see, chicken?" he asked.

The child said nothing, and an agonizing shriek was borne on the afternoon breeze.

"Oh, God! my God! I am killed!" cried the voice of Bonaparte, as he, with wide open mouth and shaking flesh, fell into the room, followed by a half- grown ostrich, who put its head in at the door, opened its beak at him, and went away.

"Shut the door! shut the door! As you value my life, shut the door!" cried Bonaparte, sinking into a chair, his face blue and white, with a greenishness about the mouth. "Ah, my friend," he said tremulously, "eternity has looked me in the face! My life's thread hung upon a cord! The valley of the shadow of death!" said Bonaparte, seizing the German's arm.

"Dear, dear, dear!" said the German, who had closed the lower half of the door, and stood much concerned beside the stranger, "you have had a fright. I never knew so young a bird to chase before; but they will take dislikes to certain people. I sent a boy away once because a bird would chase him. Ah, dear, dear!"

"When I looked round," said Bonaparte, "the red and yawning cavity was above me, and the reprehensible paw raised to strike me. My nerves," said Bonaparte, suddenly growing faint, "always delicate–highly strung–are broken–broken! You could not give a little wine, a little brandy my friend?"

The old German hurried away to the bookshelf, and took from behind the books a small bottle, half of whose contents he poured into a cup. Bonaparte drained it eagerly.

"How do you feel now?" asked the German, looking at him with much sympathy.

"A little, slightly, better."

The German went out to pick up the battered chimneypot which had fallen before the door.

"I am sorry you got the fright. The birds are bad things till you know them," he said sympathetically, as he put the hat down.

"My friend," said Bonaparte, holding out his hand, "I forgive you; do not be disturbed. Whatever the consequences, I forgive you. I know, I believe, it was with no ill-intent that you allowed me to go out. Give me your hand. I have no ill-feeling; none!"

"You are very kind," said the German, taking the extended hand, and feeling suddenly convinced that he was receiving magnanimous forgiveness for some great injury, "you are very kind."

"Don't mention it," said Bonaparte.

He knocked out the crown of his caved-in old hat, placed it on the table before him, leaned his elbows on the table and his face in his hands, and contemplated it.

"Ah, my old friend," he thus apostrophized the hat, "you have served me long, you have served me faithfully, but the last day has come. Never more shall you be borne upon the head of your master. Never more shall you protect his brow from the burning rays of summer or the cutting winds of winter. Henceforth bare-headed must your master go. Good-bye, good-bye, old hat!"

At the end of this affecting appeal the German rose. He went to the box at the foot of his bed; out of it he took a black hat, which had evidently been seldom worn and carefully preserved.

"It's not exactly what you may have been accustomed to," he said nervously, putting it down beside the battered chimneypot, "but it might be of some use–a protection to the head, you know."

"My friend," said Bonaparte, "you are not following my advice; you are allowing yourself to be reproached on my account. Do not make yourself unhappy. No; I shall go bare-headed."

"No, no, no!" cried the German energetically. "I have no use for the hat, none at all. It is shut up in the box."

"Then I will take it, my friend. It is a comfort to one's own mind when you have unintentionally injured any one to make reparation. I know the feeling. The hat may not be of that refined cut of which the old one was, but it will serve, yes, it will serve. Thank you," said Bonaparte, adjusting it on his head, and then replacing it on the table. "I shall lie down now and take a little repose," he added; "I much fear my appetite for supper will be lost."

"I hope not, I hope not," said the German, reseating himself at his work, and looking much concerned as Bonaparte stretched himself on the bed and turned the end of the patchwork quilt over his feet.

"You must not think to make your departure, not for many days," said the German presently. "Tant Sannie gives her consent, and–" "My friend," said Bonaparte, closing his eyes sadly, "you are kind; but were it not that tomorrow is the Sabbath, weak and trembling as I lie here, I would proceed on my way. I must seek work; idleness but for a day is painful. Work, labour–that is the secret of all true happiness!"

He doubled the pillar under his head, and watched how the German drew the leather thongs in and out.

After a while Lyndall silently put her book on the shelf and went home, and the German stood up and began to mix some water and meal for roaster-cakes. As he stirred them with his hands he said:

"I make always a double supply on Saturday night; the hands are then free as the thoughts for Sunday."

"The blessed Sabbath!" said Bonaparte.

There was a pause. Bonaparte twisted his eyes without moving his head, to see if supper were already on the fire.

"You must sorely miss the administration of the Lord's word in this desolate spot," added Bonaparte. "Oh, how love I Thine house, and the place where Thine honour dwelleth!"

"Well, we do; yes," said the German; "but we do our best. We meet together, and I–well, I say a few words, and perhaps they are not wholly lost, not quite."

"Strange coincidence," said Bonaparte; "my plan always was the same. Was in the Free State once–solitary farm–one neighbour. Every Sunday I called together friend and neighbour, child and servant, and said, 'Rejoice with me, that we may serve the Lord,' and then I addressed them. Ah, those were blessed times," said Bonaparte; "would they might return."

The German stirred at the cakes, and stirred, and stirred, and stirred. He could give the stranger his bed, and he could give the stranger his hat, and he could give the stranger his brandy; but his Sunday service!

After a good while he said:

"I might speak to Tant Sannie; I might arrange; you might take the service in my place, if it–"

"My friend," said Bonaparte, "it would give me the profoundest felicity, the most unbounded satisfaction; but in these worn-out habiliments, in these deteriorated garments, it would not be possible, it would not be fitting that I should officiate in service of One whom, for respect, we shall not name. No, my friend, I will remain here; and, while you are assembling yourselves together in the presence of the Lord, I, in my solitude, will think of and pray for you. No; I will remain here!"

It was a touching picture–the solitary man there praying for them. The German cleared his hands from the meal, and went to the chest from which he had taken the black hat. After a little careful feeling about, he produced a black cloth coat, trousers, and waistcoat, which he laid on the table, smiling knowingly. They were of new shining cloth, worn twice a year, when he went to the town to nachtmaal. He looked with great pride at the coat as he unfolded it and held it up.

"It's not the latest fashion, perhaps, not a West End cut, not exactly; but it might do; it might serve at a push. Try it on, try it on!" he said, his old grey eyes twinkling with pride.

Bonaparte stood up and tried on the coat. It fitted admirably; the waistcoat could be made to button by ripping up the back, and the trousers were perfect; but below were the ragged boots. The German was not disconcerted. Going to the beam where a pair of top-boots hung, he took them off, dusted them carefully, and put them down before Bonaparte. The old eyes now fairly brimmed over with sparkling enjoyment.

"I have only worn them once. They might serve; they might be endured."

Bonaparte drew them on and stood upright, his head almost touching the beams. The German looked at him with profound admiration. It was wonderful what a difference feathers made in the bird.