"Ah, what is the matter?" asked Waldo, stopping at the foot of the ladder with a load of skins on his back that he was carrying up to the loft. Through the open door in the gable little Em was visible, her feet dangling from the high bench on which she sat. The room, once a storeroom, had been divided by a row of mealie bags into two parts–the back being Bonaparte's bedroom, the front his schoolroom.
"Lyndall made him angry," said the girl tearfully; "and he has given me the fourteenth of John to learn. He says he will teach me to behave myself when Lyndall troubles him."
"What did she do?" asked the boy.
"You see," said Em, hopelessly turning the leaves, "whenever he talks she looks out at the door, as though she did not hear him. Today she asked him what the signs of the Zodiac were, and he said he was surprised that she should ask him; it was not a fit and proper thing for little girls to talk about. Then she asked him who Copernicus was; and he said he was one of the Emperors of Rome, who burned the Christians in a golden pig, and the worms ate him up while he was still alive. I don't know why," said Em plaintively, "but she just put her books under her arm and walked out; and she will never come to his school again, she says, and she always does what she says. And now I must sit here every day alone," said Em, the great tears dropping softly.
"Perhaps Tant Sannie will send him away," said the boy, in his mumbling way, trying to comfort her.
"No," said Em, shaking her head; "no. Last night when the little Hottentot maid was washing her feet, he told her he liked such feet, and that fat women were so nice to him; and she said I must always put pure cream in his coffee now. No; he'll never go away," said Em dolorously.
The boy put down his skins and fumbled in his pocket, and produced a small piece of paper containing something. He stuck it out toward her.
"There, take it for you," he said. This was by way of comfort.
Em opened it and found a small bit of gum, a commodity prized by the children; but the great tears dropped down slowly on to it.
Waldo was distressed. He had cried so much in his morsel of life that tears in another seemed to burn him.
"If," he said, stepping in awkwardly and standing by the table, "if you will not cry I will tell you something–a secret."
"What is that?" asked Em, instantly becoming decidedly better.
"You will tell it to no human being?"
He bent nearer to her, and with deep solemnity said:
"I have made a machine!"
Em opened her eyes.
"Yes; a machine for shearing sheep. It is almost done," said the boy. "There is only one thing that is not right yet; but it will be soon. When you think, and think, and think, all night and all day, it comes at last," he added mysteriously.
"Where is it?"
"Here! I always carry it here," said the boy, putting his hand to his breast, where a bulging-out was visible. "This is a model. When it is done they will have to make a large one."
"Show it me."
The boy shook his head.
"No, not till it is done. I cannot let any human being see it till then."
"It is a beautiful secret," said Em; and the boy shuffled out to pick up his skins.
That evening father and son sat in the cabin eating their supper. The father sighed deeply sometimes. Perhaps he thought how long a time it was since Bonaparte had visited the cabin; but his son was in that land in which sighs have no part. It is a question whether it were not better to be the shabbiest of fools, and know the way up the little stair of imagination to the land of dreams, than the wisest of men, who see nothing that the eyes do not show, and feel nothing that the hands do not touch. The boy chewed his brown bread and drank his coffee; but in truth he saw only his machine finished–that last something found out and added. He saw it as it worked with beautiful smoothness; and over and above, as he chewed his bread and drank his coffee, there was that delightful consciousness of something bending over him and loving him. It would not have been better in one of the courts of heaven, where the walls are set with rows of the King of Glory's amethysts and milk-white pearls, than there, eating his supper in that little room.
As they sat in silence there was a knock at the door. When it was opened the small woolly head of a little nigger showed itself. She was a messenger from Tant Sannie: the German was wanted at once at the homestead. Putting on his hat with both hands, he hurried off. The kitchen was in darkness, but in the pantry beyond Tant Sannie and her maids were assembled.
A Kaffer girl, who had been grinding pepper between two stones, knelt on the floor, the lean Hottentot stood with a brass candlestick in her hand, and Tant Sannie, near the shelf, with a hand on each hip, was evidently listening intently, as were her companions.
"What may be it?" cried the old German in astonishment. The room beyond the pantry was the storeroom. Through the thin wooden partition there arose at that instant, evidently from some creature ensconced there, a prolonged and prodigious howl, followed by a succession of violent blows against the partition wall.
The German seized the churn-stick, and was about to rush round the house, when the Boer-woman impressively laid her hand upon his arm.
"That is his head," said Tant Sannie, "that is his head."
"But what might it be?" asked the German, looking from one to the other, churn-stick in hand.
A low hollow bellow prevented reply, and the voice of Bonaparte lifted itself on high.
"Mary-Ann! my angel! my wife!"
"Isn't it dreadful?" said Tant Sannie, as the blows were repeated fiercely. "He has got a letter; his wife is dead. You must go and comfort him," said Tant Sannie at last, "and I will go with you. It would not be the thing for me to go alone–me, who am only thirty-three, and he an unmarried man now," said Tant Sannie, blushing and smoothing out her apron.
Upon this they all trudged round the house in company–the Hottentot maid carrying the light, Tant Sannie and the German following, and the Kaffer girl bringing up the rear.
"Oh," said Tant Sannie, "I see now it wasn't wickedness made him do without his wife so long–only necessity."
At the door she motioned to the German to enter, and followed him closely. On the stretcher behind the sacks Bonaparte lay on his face, his head pressed into a pillow, his legs kicking gently. The Boer-woman sat down on a box at the foot of the bed. The German stood with folded hands looking on.
"We must all die," said Tant Sannie at last; "it is the dear Lord's will."
Hearing her voice, Bonaparte turned himself on to his back.
"It's very hard," said Tant Sannie, "I know, for I've lost two husbands."
Bonaparte looked up into the German's face.
"Oh, what does she say? Speak to me words of comfort!"
The German repeated Tant Sannie's remark.
"Ah, I–I also! Two dear, dear wives, whom I shall never see any more!" cried Bonaparte, flinging himself back upon the bed.
He howled, till the tarantulas, who lived between the rafters and the zinc roof, felt the unusual vibration, and looked out with their wicked bright eyes, to see what was going on.
Tant Sannie sighed, the Hottentot maid sighed, the Kaffer girl who looked in at the door put her hand over her mouth and said "Mow-wah!"
"You must trust in the Lord," said Tant Sannie. "He can give you more than you have lost."
"I do, I do!" he cried; "but oh, I have no wife! I have no wife!"
Tant Sannie was much affected, and came and stood near the bed.
"Ask him if he won't have a little pap–nice, fine, flour pap. There is some boiling on the kitchen fire."
The German made the proposal, but the widower waved his hand.
"No, nothing shall pass my lips. I should be suffocated. No, no! Speak not of food to me!"
"Pap, and a little brandy in," said Tant Sannie coaxingly.
Bonaparte caught the word.
"Perhaps, perhaps–if I struggled with myself–for the sake of my duties I might imbibe a few drops," he said, looking with quivering lip up into the German's face. "I must do my duty, must I not?"
Tant Sannie gave the order, and the girl went for the pap.
"I know how it was when my first husband died. They could do nothing with me," the Boer-woman said, "till I had eaten a sheep's trotter, and honey, and a little roaster-cake. I know."
Bonaparte sat up on the bed with his legs stretched out in front of him, and a hand on each knee, blubbering softly.
"Oh, she was a woman! You are very kind to try and comfort me, but she was my wife. For a woman that is my wife I could live; for the woman that is my wife I could die! For a woman that is my wife I could–Ah! that sweet word "wife"; when will it rest upon my lips again?"
When his feelings had subsided a little he raised the corners of his turned-down mouth, and spoke to the German with flabby lips.
"Do you think she understands me? Oh, tell her every word, that she may know I thank her."
At that instant the girl reappeared with a basin of steaming gruel and a black bottle.
Tant Sannie poured some of its contents into the basin, stirred it well, and came to the bed.
"Oh, I can't, I can't! I shall die! I shall die!" said Bonaparte, putting his hands to his side.
"Come, just a little," said Tant Sannie coaxingly; "just a drop."
"It's too thick, it's too thick. I should choke."
Tant Sannie added from the contents of the bottle and held out a spoonful; Bonaparte opened his mouth like a little bird waiting for a worm, and held it open, as she dipped again and again into the pap.
"Ah, this will do your heart good," said Tant Sannie, in whose mind the relative functions of heart and stomach were exceedingly ill-defined.
When the basin was emptied the violence of his grief was much assuaged; he looked at Tant Sannie with gentle tears.
"Tell him," said the Boer-woman, "that I hope he will sleep well, and that the Lord will comfort him, as the Lord only can."
"Bless you, dear friend, God bless you," said Bonaparte.
When the door was safely shut on the German, the Hottentot, and the Dutchwoman, he got off the bed and washed away the soap he had rubbed on his eyelids.
"Bon," he said, slapping his leg, "you're the cutest lad I ever came across. If you don't turn out the old Hymns-and-prayers, and pummel the Ragged coat, and get your arms round the fat one's waist and a wedding-ring on her finger, then you are not Bonaparte. But you are Bonaparte. Bon, you're a fine boy!"
Making which pleasing reflection, he pulled off his trousers and got into bed cheerfully.