Bonaparte Blenkins was riding home on the grey mare. He had ridden out that afternoon, partly for the benefit of his health, partly to maintain his character as overseer of the farm. As he rode on slowly, he thoughtfully touched the ears of the grey mare with his whip.
"No, Bon, my boy," he addressed himself, "don't propose! You can't marry for four years, on account of the will; then why propose? Wheedle her, tweedle her, teedle her, but don't let her make sure of you. When a woman," said Bonaparte, sagely resting his finger against the side of his nose, "When a woman is sure of you she does what she likes with you; but when she isn't, you do what you like with her. And I–" said Bonaparte.
Here he drew the horse up suddenly and looked. He was now close to the house, and leaning over the pigsty wall, in company with Em, who was showing her the pigs, was a strange female figure. It was the first visitor that had appeared on the farm since his arrival, and he looked at her with interest. She was a tall, pudgy girl of fifteen, weighing a hundred and fifty pounds, with baggy pendulous cheeks and up-turned nose. She strikingly resembled Tant Sannie, in form and feature, but her sleepy good eyes lacked that twinkle that dwelt in the Boer-woman's small orbs. She was attired in a bright green print, wore brass rings in her ears and glass beads round her neck, and was sucking the tip of her large finger as she looked at the pigs.
"Who is it that has come?" asked Bonaparte, when he stood drinking his coffee in the front room.
"Why, my niece, to be sure," said Tant Sannie, the Hottentot maid translating. "She's the only daughter of my only brother Paul, and she's come to visit me. She'll be a nice mouthful to the man that can get her," added Tant Sannie. "Her father's got two thousand pounds in the green wagon box under his bed, and a farm, and five thousand sheep, and God Almighty knows how many goats and horses. They milk ten cows in mid- winter, and the young men are after her like flies about a bowl of milk. She says she means to get married in four months, but she doesn't yet know to whom. It was so with me when I was young," said Tant Sannie. "I've sat up with the young men four and five nights a week. And they will come riding again, as soon as ever they know that the time's up that the Englishman made me agree not to marry in."
The Boer-woman smirked complacently.
"Where are you going to?" asked Tant Sannie presently, seeing that Bonaparte rose.
"Ha! I'm just going to the kraals; I'll be in to supper," said Bonaparte.
Nevertheless, when he reached his own door he stopped and turned in there. Soon after he stood before the little glass, arrayed in his best white shirt with the little tucks, and shaving himself. He had on his very best trousers, and had heavily oiled the little fringe at the back of his head, which, however, refused to become darker. But what distressed him most was his nose–it was very red. He rubbed his finger and thumb on the wall, and put a little whitewash on it; but, finding it rather made matters worse, he rubbed it off again. Then he looked carefully into his own eyes. They certainly were a little pulled down at the outer corners, which gave them the appearance of looking crosswise; but then they were a nice blue. So he put on his best coat, took up his stick, and went out to supper, feeling on the whole well satisfied.
"Aunt," said Trana to Tant Sannie when that night they lay together in the great wooden bed, "why does the Englishman sigh so when he looks at me?"
"Ha!" said Tant Sannie, who was half asleep, but suddenly started, wide awake. "It's because he thinks you look like me. I tell you, Trana," said Tant Sannie, "the man is mad with love of me. I told him the other night I couldn't marry till Em was sixteen, or I'd lose all the sheep her father left me. And he talked about Jacob working seven years and seven years again for his wife. And of course he meant me," said Tant Sannie pompously. "But he won't get me so easily as he thinks; he'll have to ask more than once."
"Oh!" said Trana, who was a lumpish girl and not much given to talking; but presently she added, "Aunt, why does the Englishman always knock against a person when he passes them?"
"That's because you are always in the way," said Tant Sannie.
"But, aunt, said Trana, presently, "I think he is very ugly."
"Phugh!" said Tant Sannie. It's only because we're not accustomed to such noses in this country. In his country he says all the people have such noses, and the redder your nose is the higher you are. He's of the family of the Queen Victoria, you know," said Tant Sannie, wakening up with her subject; "and he doesn't think anything of governors and church elders and such people; they are nothing to him. When his aunt with the dropsy dies he'll have money enough to buy all the farms in this district."
"Oh!" said Trana. That certainly made a difference.
"Yes," said Tant Sannie; "and he's only forty-one, though you'd take him to be sixty. And he told me last night the real reason of his baldness."
Tant Sannie then proceeded to relate how, at eighteen years of age, Bonaparte had courted a fair young lady. How a deadly rival, jealous of his verdant locks, his golden flowing hair, had, with a damnable and insinuating deception, made him a present of a pot of pomatum. How, applying it in the evening, on rising in the morning he found his pillow strewn with the golden locks, and, looking into the glass, beheld the shining and smooth expanse which henceforth he must bear. The few remaining hairs were turned to a silvery whiteness, and the young lady married his rival.
"And," said Tant Sannie solemnly, "if it had not been for the grace of God, and reading of the psalms, he says he would have killed himself. He says he could kill himself quite easily if he wants to marry a woman and she won't."
"Alle wereld!" said Trana: and then they went to sleep.
Every one was lost in sleep soon; but from the window of the cabin the light streamed forth. It came from a dung fire, over which Waldo sat brooding. Hour after hour he sat there, now and again throwing a fresh lump of fuel on to the fire, which burnt up bravely, and then sank into a great bed of red coals, which reflected themselves in the boy's eyes as he sat there brooding, brooding, brooding. At last, when the fire was blazing at its brightest, he rose suddenly and walked slowly to a beam from which an ox riem hung. Loosening it, he ran a noose in one end and then doubled it round his arm.
"Mine, mine! I have a right," he muttered; and then something louder, "if I fall and am killed, so much the better!"
He opened the door and went out into the starlight.
He walked with his eyes bent upon the ground, but overhead it was one of those brilliant southern nights when every space so small that your hand might cover it shows fifty cold white points, and the Milky-Way is a belt of sharp frosted silver. He passed the door where Bonaparte lay dreaming of Trana and her wealth, and he mounted the ladder steps. From those he clambered with some difficulty on to the roof of the house. It was of old rotten thatch with a ridge of white plaster, and it crumbled away under his feet at every step. He trod as heavily as he could. So much the better if he fell.
He knelt down when he got to the far gable, and began to fasten his riem to the crumbling bricks. Below was the little window of the loft. With one end of the riem tied round the gable, the other end round his waist, how easy to slide down to it, and to open it, through one of the broken panes, and to go in, and to fill his arms with books, and to clamber up again! They had burnt one book–he would have twenty. Every man's hand was against his–his should be against every man's. No one would help him–he would help himself.
He lifted the black damp hair from his knit forehead, and looked round to cool his hot face. Then he saw what a regal night it was. He knelt silently and looked up. A thousand eyes were looking down at him, bright and so cold. There was a laughing irony in them.
"So hot, so bitter, so angry? Poor little mortal?"
He was ashamed. He folded his arms, and sat on the ridge of the roof looking up at them.
"So hot, so bitter, so angry?"
It was as though a cold hand had been laid upon his throbbing forehead, and slowly they began to fade and grow dim. Tant Sannie and the burnt book, Bonaparte and the broken machine, the box in the loft, he himself sitting there–how small they all became! Even the grave over yonder. Those stars that shone on up above so quietly, they had seen a thousand such little existences fight just so fiercely, flare up just so brightly and go out; and they, the old, old stars, shone on forever.
"So hot, so angry, poor little soul?" they said.
The riem slipped from his fingers; he sat with his arms folded, looking up.
"We," said the stars, have seen the earth when it was young. We have seen small things creep out upon its surface–small things that prayed and loved and cried very loudly, and then crept under it again. But we," said the stars, "are as old as the Unknown."
He leaned his chin against the palm of his hand and looked up at them. So long he sat there that bright stars set and new ones rose, and yet he sat on.
Then at last he stood up, and began to loosen the riem from the gable.
What did it matter about the books? The lust and the desire for them had died out. If they pleased to keep them from him they might. What matter? it was a very little thing. Why hate, and struggle, and fight? Let it be as it would.
He twisted the riem round his arm and walked back along the ridge of the house.
By this time Bonaparte Blenkins had finished his dream of Trana, and as he turned himself round for a fresh doze he heard the steps descending the ladder. His first impulse was to draw the blanket over his head and his legs under him, and to shout; but recollecting that the door was locked and the window carefully bolted, he allowed his head slowly to crop out among the blankets, and listened intently. Whosoever it might be, there was no danger of their getting at him; so he clambered out of bed, and going on tiptoe to the door, applied his eye to the keyhole. There was nothing to be seen; so walking to the window, he brought his face as close to the glass as his nose would allow. There was a figure just discernible. The lad was not trying to walk softly, and the heavy shuffling of the well- known velschoens could be clearly heard through the closed window as they crossed the stones in the yard. Bonaparte listened till they had died away round the corner of the wagon-house; and, feeling that his bare legs were getting cold, he jumped back into bed again.
"What do you keep up in your loft?" inquired Bonaparte of the Boer-woman the next evening, pointing upwards and elucidating his meaning by the addition of such Dutch words as he knew, for the lean Hottentot was gone home.
"Dried skins," said the Boer-woman, "and empty bottles, and boxes, and sacks, and soap."
"You don't keep any of your provisions there–sugar, now?" said Bonaparte, pointing to the sugar-basin and then up at the loft.
Tant Sannie shook her head.
"Only salt, and dried peaches."
"Dried peaches! Eh?" said Bonaparte. "Shut the door, my dear child, shut it tight," he called out to Em, who stood in the dining room. Then he leaned over the elbow of the sofa and brought his face as close as possible to the Boer-woman's, and made signs of eating. Then he said something she did not comprehend; then said, "Waldo, Waldo, Waldo," pointed up to the loft, and made signs of eating again.
Now an inkling of his meaning dawned on the Boer-woman's mind. To make it clearer, he moved his legs after the manner of one going up a ladder, appeared to be opening a door, masticated vigorously, said, "Peaches, peaches, peaches," and appeared to be coming down the ladder.
It was now evident to Tant Sannie that Waldo had been in her loft and eaten her peaches.
To exemplify his own share in the proceedings, Bonaparte lay down on the sofa, and shutting his eyes tightly, said, "Night, night, night!" Then he sat up wildly, appearing to be intently listening, mimicked with his feet the coming down a ladder, and looked at Tant Sannie. This clearly showed how, roused in the night, he had discovered the theft.
"He must have been a great fool to eat my peaches," said Tant Sannie. "They are full of mites as a sheepskin, and as hard as stones."
Bonaparte, fumbling in his pocket, did not even hear her remark, and took out from his coat-tail a little horsewhip, nicely rolled up. Bonaparte winked at the little rhinoceros horsewhip, at the Boer-woman, and then at the door.
"Shall we call him–Waldo, Waldo?" he said.
Tant Sannie nodded, and giggled. There was something so exceedingly humorous in the idea that he was going to beat the boy, though for her own part she did not see that the peaches were worth it. When the Kaffer maid came with the wash-tub she was sent to summon Waldo; and Bonaparte doubled up the little whip and put it in his pocket. Then he drew himself up, and prepared to act his important part with becoming gravity. Soon Waldo stood in the door, and took off his hat.
"Come in, come in, my lad," said Bonaparte, "and shut the door behind."
The boy came in and stood before them.
"You need not be so afraid, child," said Tant Sannie. "I was a child myself once. It's no great harm if you have taken a few."
Bonaparte perceived that her remark was not in keeping with the nature of the proceedings, and of the little drama he intended to act. Pursing out his lips, and waving his hand, he solemnly addressed the boy.
"Waldo, it grieves me beyond expression to have to summon you for so painful a purpose; but it is at the imperative call of duty, which I dare not evade. I do not state that frank and unreserved confession will obviate the necessity of chastisement, which if requisite shall be fully administered; but the nature of that chastisement may be mitigated by free and humble confession. Waldo, answer me as you would your own father, in whose place I now stand to you; have you, or have you not, did you, or did you not, eat of the peaches in the loft?"
"Say you took them, boy, say you took them, then he won't beat you much," said the Dutchwoman, good-naturedly, getting a little sorry for him.
The boy raised his eyes slowly and fixed them vacantly upon her, then suddenly his face grew dark with blood.
"So, you haven't got anything to say to us, my lad?" said Bonaparte, momentarily forgetting his dignity, and bending forward with a little snarl. "But what I mean is just this, my lad–when it takes a boy three- quarters of an hour to fill a salt-pot, and when at three o'clock in the morning he goes knocking about the doors of a loft, it's natural to suppose there's mischief in it. It's certain there is mischief in it; and where there's mischief in, it must be taken out," said Bonaparte, grinning into the boy's face. Then, feeling that he had fallen from that high gravity which was as spice to the pudding, and the flavour of the whole little tragedy, he drew himself up. "Waldo," he said, "confess to me instantly, and without reserve, that you ate the peaches."
The boy's face was white now. His eyes were on the ground, his hands doggedly clasped before him.
"What, do you not intend to answer?"
The boy looked up at them once from under his bent eyebrows, and then looked down again.
"The creature looks as if all the devils in hell were in it," cried Tant Sannie. "Say you took them, boy. Young things will be young things; I was older than you when I used to eat bultong in my mother's loft, and get the little niggers whipped for it. Say you took them."
But the boy said nothing.
"I think a little solitary confinement might perhaps be beneficial," said Bonaparte. "It will enable you, Waldo, to reflect on the enormity of the sin you have committed against our Father in heaven. And you may also think of the submission you owe to those who are older and wiser than you are, and whose duty it is to check and correct you."
Saying this, Bonaparte stood up and took down the key of the fuel-house, which hung on a nail against the wall.
"Walk on, my boy," said Bonaparte, pointing to the door; and as he followed him out he drew his mouth expressively on one side, and made the lash of the little horsewhip stick out of his pocket and shake up and down.
Tant Sannie felt half sorry for the lad; but she could not help laughing, it was always so funny when one was going to have a whipping, and it would do him good. Anyhow, he would forget all about it when the places were healed. Had not she been beaten many times and been all the better for it?
Bonaparte took up a lighted candle that had been left burning on the kitchen table, and told the boy to walk before him. They went to the fuel- house. It was a little stone erection that jutted out from the side of the wagon-house. It was low and without a window, and the dried dung was piled in one corner, and the coffee-mill stood in another, fastened on the top of a short post about three feet high. Bonaparte took the padlock off the rough door.
"Walk in, my lad," he said.
Waldo obeyed sullenly; one place to him was much the same as another. He had no objection to being locked up.
Bonaparte followed him in, and closed the door carefully. He put the light down on the heap of dung in the corner, and quietly introduced his hand under his coat-tails, and drew slowly from his pocket the end of a rope, which he concealed behind him.
"I'm very sorry, exceedingly sorry, Waldo, my lad, that you should have acted in this manner. It grieves me," said Bonaparte.
He moved round toward the boy's back. He hardly liked the look in the fellow's eyes, though he stood there motionless. If he should spring on him!
So he drew the rope out very carefully, and shifted round to the wooden post. There was a slipknot in one end of the rope, and a sudden movement drew the boy's hands to his back and passed it round them. It was an instant's work to drag it twice round the wooden post: then Bonaparte was safe.
For a moment the boy struggled to free himself; then he knew that he was powerless, and stood still.
"Horses that kick must have their legs tied," said Bonaparte, as he passed the other end of the rope round the boy's knees. "And now, my dear Waldo," taking the whip out of his pocket, "I am going to beat you."
He paused for a moment. It was perfectly quiet; they could hear each other's breath.
"'Chasten thy son while there is hope,'" said Bonaparte, "'and let not thy soul spare for his crying.' Those are God's words. I shall act as a father to you, Waldo. I think we had better have your naked back."
He took out his penknife, and slit the shirt down from the shoulder to the waist.
"Now," said Bonaparte, "I hope the Lord will bless and sanctify to you what I am going to do to you."
The first cut ran from the shoulder across the middle of the back; the second fell exactly in the same place. A shudder passed through the boy's frame.
"Nice, eh?" said Bonaparte, peeping round into his face, speaking with a lisp, as though to a very little child. "Nith, eh?"
But the eyes were black and lustreless, and seemed not to see him. When he had given sixteen Bonaparte paused in his work to wipe a little drop of blood from his whip.
"Cold, eh? What makes you shiver so? Perhaps you would like to pull up your shirt? But I've not quite done yet."
When he had finished he wiped the whip again, and put it back in his pocket. He cut the rope through with his penknife, and then took up the light.
"You don't seem to have found your tongue yet. Forgotten how to cry?" said Bonaparte, patting him on the cheek.
The boy looked up at him–not sullenly, not angrily. There was a wild, fitful terror in the eyes. Bonaparte made haste to go out and shut the door, and leave him alone in the darkness. He himself was afraid of that look.
It was almost morning. Waldo lay with his face upon the ground at the foot of the fuel-heap. There was a round hole near the top of the door, where a knot of wood had fallen out, and a stream of grey light came in through it.
Ah, it was going to end at last. Nothing lasts forever, not even the night. How was it he had never thought of that before? For in all that long dark night he had been very strong, had never been tired, never felt pain, had run on and on, up and down, up and down; he had not dared to stand still, and he had not known it would end. He had been so strong, that when he struck his head with all his force upon the stone wall it did not stun him nor pain him–only made him laugh. That was a dreadful night.
When he clasped his hands frantically and prayed–"O God, my beautiful God, my sweet God, once, only once, let me feel you near me tonight!" he could not feel him. He prayed aloud, very loud, and he got no answer; when he listened it was all quite quiet–like when the priests of Baal cried aloud to their god–"Oh, Baal, hear us! Oh, Baal, hear us! But Baal was gone a- hunting.
That was a long wild night, and wild thoughts came and went in it; but they left their marks behind them forever: for, as years cannot pass without leaving their traces behind them, neither can nights into which are forced the thoughts and sufferings of years. And now the dawn was coming, and at last he was very tired. He shivered and tried to draw the shirt up over his shoulders. They were getting stiff. He had never known they were cut in the night. He looked up at the white light that came in through the hole at the top of the door and shuddered. Then he turned his face back to the ground and slept again.
Some hours later Bonaparte came toward the fuel-house with a lump of bread in his hand. He opened the door and peered in; then entered, and touched the fellow with his boot. Seeing that he breathed heavily, though he did not rouse, Bonaparte threw the bread down on the ground. He was alive, that was one thing. He bent over him, and carefully scratched open one of the cuts with the nail of his forefinger, examining with much interest his last night's work. He would have to count his sheep himself that day; the boy was literally cut up. He locked the door and went away again.
"Oh, Lyndall," said Em, entering the dining room, and bathed in tears, that afternoon, "I have been begging Bonaparte to let him out, and he won't."
"The more you beg the more he will not," said Lyndall.
She was cutting out aprons on the table.
"Oh, but it's late, and I think they want to kill him," said Em, weeping bitterly; and finding that no more consolation was to be gained from her cousin, she went off blubbering–"I wonder you can cut out aprons when Waldo is shut up like that."
For ten minutes after she was gone Lyndall worked on quietly; then she folded up her stuff, rolled it tightly together, and stood before the closed door of the sitting room with her hands closely clasped. A flush rose to her face: she opened the door quickly, and walked in, went to the nail on which the key of the fuel-room hung. Bonaparte and Tant Sannie sat there and saw her.
"What do you want?" they asked together.
"This key," she said, holding it up, and looking at them.
"Do you mean her to have it?" said Tant Sannie in Dutch.
"Why don't you stop her?" asked Bonaparte in English.
"Why don't you take it from her?" said Tant Sannie.
So they looked at each other, talking, while Lyndall walked to the fuel- house with the key, her underlip bitten in.
"Waldo," she said, as she helped him to stand up, and twisted his arm about her waist to support him, "we will not be children always; we shall have the power, too, some day." She kissed his naked shoulder with her soft little mouth. It was all the comfort her young soul could give him.