It was just after sunset, and Lyndall had not yet returned from her first driving-lesson, when the lean coloured woman standing at the corner of the house to enjoy the evening breeze, saw coming along the road a strange horseman. Very narrowly she surveyed him, as slowly he approached. He was attired in the deepest mourning, the black crepe round his tall hat totally concealing the black felt, and nothing but a dazzling shirt-front relieving the funereal tone of his attire. He rode much forward in his saddle, with his chin resting on the uppermost of his shirt-studs, and there was an air of meek subjection to the will of Heaven, and to what might be in store for him, that bespoke itself even in the way in which he gently urged his steed. He was evidently in no hurry to reach his destination, for the nearer he approached to it the slacker did his bridle hang. The coloured woman having duly inspected him, dashed into the dwelling.
"Here is another one!" she cried–"a widower; I see it by his hat."
"Good Lord!" said Tant Sannie; "it's the seventh I've had this month; but the men know where sheep and good looks and money in the bank are to be found," she added, winking knowingly. "How does he look?"
"Nineteen, weak eyes, white hair, little round nose," said the maid.
"Then it's he! then it's he!" said Tant Sannie triumphantly; "little Piet Vander Walt, whose wife died last month–two farms, twelve thousand sheep. I've not seen him, but my sister-in-law told me about him, and I dreamed about him last night."
Here Piet's black hat appeared in the doorway, and the Boer-woman drew herself up in dignified silence, extended the tips of her fingers, and motioned solemnly to a chair. The young man seated himself, sticking his feet as far under it as they would go, and said mildly:
"I am Little Piet Vander Walt, and my father is Big Piet Vander Walt."
Tant Sannie said solemnly: "Yes."
"Aunt," said the young man, starting up spasmodically; "can I off-saddle?"
He seized his hat, and disappeared with a rush through the door.
"I told you so! I knew it!" said Tant Sannie. "The dear Lord doesn't send dreams for nothing. Didn't I tell you this morning that I dreamed of a great beast like a sheep, with red eyes, and I killed it? Wasn't the white wool his hair, and the red eyes his weak eyes, and my killing him meant marriage? Get supper ready quickly; the sheep's inside and roaster-cakes. We shall sit up tonight."
To young Piet Vander Walt that supper was a period of intense torture. There was something overawing in that assembly of English people, with their incomprehensible speech; and moreover, it was his first courtship; his first wife had courted him, and ten months of severe domestic rule had not raised his spirit nor courage. He ate little, and when he raised a morsel to his lips glanced guiltily round to see if he were not observed. He had put three rings on his little finger, with the intention of sticking it out stiffly when he raised a coffee-cup; now the little finger was curled miserably among its fellows. It was small relief when the meal was over, and Tant Sannie and he repaired to the front room. Once seated there, he set his knees close together, stood his black hat upon them, and wretchedly turned the brim up and down. But supper had cheered Tant Sannie, who found it impossible longer to maintain that decorous silence, and whose heart yearned over the youth.
"I was related to your aunt Selena who died," said Tant Sannie. "My mother's stepbrother's child was married to her father's brother's stepnephew's niece."
"Yes, aunt," said the young man, "I know we were related."
"It was her cousin," said Tant Sannie, now fairly on the flow, "who had the cancer cut out of her breast by the other doctor, who was not the right doctor they sent for, but who did it quite as well."
"Yes, aunt," said the young man.
"I've heard about it often," said Tant Sannie. "And he was the son of the old doctor that they say died on Christmas-day, but I don't know if that's true. People do tell such awful lies. Why should he die on Christmas-day more than any other day?"
"Yes, aunt, why?" said the young man meekly.
"Did you ever have the toothache?" asked Tant Sannie.
"Well, they say that doctor–not the son of the old doctor that died on Christmas-day, the other that didn't come when he was sent for–he gave such good stuff for the toothache that if you opened the bottle in the room where any one was bad they got better directly. You could see it was good stuff," said Tant Sannie; "it tasted horrid. That was a real doctor! He used to give a bottle so high," said the Boer-woman, raising her hand a foot from the table, "you could drink at it for a month and it wouldn't get done, and the same medicine was good for all sorts of sicknesses–croup, measles, jaundice, dropsy. Now you have to buy a new kind for each sickness. The doctors aren't so good as they used to be."
"No, aunt," said the young man, who was trying to gain courage to stick out his legs and clink his spurs together. He did so at last.
Tant Sannie had noticed the spurs before; but she thought it showed a nice manly spirit, and her heart warmed yet more to the youth.
"Did you ever have convulsions when you were a baby?" asked Tant Sannie.
"Yes," said the young man.
"Strange," said Tant Sannie; "I had convulsions too. Wonderful that we should be so much alike!"
"Aunt," said the young man explosively, "can we sit up tonight?"
Tant Sannie hung her head and half closed her eyes; but finding that her little wiles were thrown away, the young man staring fixedly at his hat, she simpered, "Yes," and went away to fetch candles. In the dining room Em worked at her machine, and Gregory sat close beside her, his great blue eyes turned to the window where Lyndall leaned out talking to Waldo.
Tant Sannie took two candles out of the cupboard and held them up triumphantly, winking all round the room.
"He's asked for them," she said.
"Does he want them for his horse's rubbed back?" asked Gregory, new to up- country life.
"No," said Tant Sannie, indignantly; "we're going to sit up!" and she walked off in triumph with the candles.
Nevertheless, when all the rest of the house had retired, when the long candle was lighted, when the coffee-kettle was filled, when she sat in the elbow-chair, with her lover on a chair close beside her, and when the vigil of the night was fairly begun, she began to find it wearisome. The young man looked chilly, and said nothing.
"Won't you put your feet on my stove?" said Tant Sannie.
"No thank you, aunt," said the young man, and both lapsed into silence.
At last Tant Sannie, afraid of going to sleep, tapped a strong cup of coffee for herself and handed another to her lover. This visibly revived both.
"How long were you married, cousin?"
"Ten months, aunt."
"How old was your baby?"
"Three days when it died."
"It's very hard when we must give our husbands and wives to the Lord," said Tant Sannie.
"Very," said the young man; "but it's the Lord's will."
"Yes," said Tant Sannie, and sighed.
"She was such a good wife, aunt: I've known her break a churn-stick over a maid's head for only letting dust come on a milk cloth."
Tant Sannie felt a twinge of jealousy. She had never broken a churn-stick on a maid's head.
"I hope your wife made a good end," she said.
"Oh, beautiful, aunt: she said up a psalm and two hymns and a half before she died."
"Did she leave any messages?" asked Tant Sannie.
"No," said the young man; "but the night before she died I was lying at the foot of her bed; I felt her foot kick me.
"'Piet,' she said.
"'Annie, my heart,' said I.
"'My little baby that died yesterday has been here, and it stood over the wagon-box,' she said.
"'What did it say?' I asked.
"'It said that if I died you must marry a fat woman.'
"'I will,' I said, and I went to sleep again. Presently she woke me.
"'The little baby has been here again, and it says you must marry a woman over thirty, and who's had two husbands.'
"I didn't go to sleep after that for a long time, aunt; but when I did she woke me.
"'The baby has been here again,' she said, 'and it says you mustn't marry a woman with a mole.' I told her I wouldn't; and the next day she died."
"That was a vision from the Redeemer," said Tant Sannie.
The young man nodded his head mournfully. He thought of a younger sister of his wife's who was not fat, and who had a mole, and of whom his wife had always been jealous, and he wished the little baby had liked better staying in heaven than coming and standing over the wagon-chest.
"I suppose that's why you came to me," said Tant Sannie.
"Yes, aunt. And pa said I ought to get married before shearing-time. It is bad if there's no one to see after things then; and the maids waste such a lot of fat."
"When do you want to get married?"
"Next month, aunt," said the young man in a tone of hopeless resignation. "May I kiss you, aunt?"
"Fie! fie!" said Tant Sannie, and then gave him a resounding kiss. Come, draw your chair a little closer," she said, and their elbows now touching, they sat on through the night.
The next morning at dawn, as Em passed through Tant Sannie's bedroom, she found the Boer-woman pulling off her boots preparatory to climbing into bed.
"Where is Piet Vander Walt?"
"Just gone," said Tant Sannie; "and I am going to marry him this day four weeks. I am dead sleepy," she added; "the stupid thing doesn't know how to talk love-talk at all," and she climbed into the four-poster, clothes and all, and drew the quilt up to her chin.
On the day preceding Tant Sannie's wedding, Gregory Rose sat in the blazing sun on the stone wall behind his daub-and-wattle house. It was warm, but he was intently watching a small buggy that was being recklessly driven over the bushes in the direction of the farmhouse. Gregory never stirred till it had vanished; then, finding the stones hot, he slipped down and walked into the house. He kicked the little pail that lay in the doorway, and sent it into one corner; that did him good. Then he sat down on the box, and began cutting letters out of a piece of newspaper. Finding that the snippings littered the floor, he picked them up and began scribbling on his blotting-paper. He tried the effect of different initials before the name Rose: G. Rose, E. Rose, L. Rose, Rose, L.L., L.L. Rose. When he had covered the sheet, he looked at it discontentedly a little while, then suddenly began to write a letter:
"It is a long while since I last wrote to you, but I have had no time. This is the first morning I have been at home since I don't know when. Em always expects me to go down to the farmhouse in the morning; but I didn't feel as though I could stand the ride today.
"I have much news for you.
"Tant Sannie, Em's Boer stepmother, is to be married tomorrow. She is gone to town today, and the wedding feast is to be at her brother's farm. Em and I are going to ride over on horseback, but her cousin is going to ride in the buggy with that German. I don't think I've written to you since she came back from school. I don't think you would like her at all, Jemima; there's something so proud about her. She thinks just because she's handsome there's nobody good enough to talk to her, and just as if there had nobody else but her been to boarding-school before.
"They are going to have a grand affair tomorrow; all the Boers about are coming, and they are going to dance all night; but I don't think I shall dance at all; for, as Em's cousin says, these Boer dances are low things. I am sure I only danced at the last to please Em. I don't know why she is fond of dancing. Em talked of our being married on the same day as Tant Sannie; but I said it would be nicer for her if she waited till the shearing was over, and I took her down to see you. I suppose she will have to live with us (Em's cousin, I mean), as she has not anything in the world but a poor fifty pounds. I don't like her at all, Jemima, and I don't think you would. She's got such queer ways; she's always driving about in a gig with that low German; and I don't think it's at all the thing for a woman to be going about with a man she's not engaged to. Do you? If it was me now, of course, who am a kind of connection, it would be different. The way she treats me, considering that I am so soon to be her cousin, is not at all nice. I took down my album the other day with your likenesses in it, and I told her she could look at it, and put it down close to her; but she just said, Thank you, and never even touched it, as much as to say- -What are your relations to me?
"She gets the wildest horses in that buggy, and a horrid snappish little cur belonging to the German sitting in front, and then she drives out alone. I don't think it's at all proper for a woman to drive out alone; I wouldn't allow it if she was my sister. The other morning, I don't know how it happened, I was going in the way from which she was coming, and that little beast–they call him Doss–began to bark when he saw me–he always does, the little wretch–and the horses began to spring, and kicked the splashboard all to pieces. It was a sight to see Jemima! She has got the littlest hands I ever saw–I could hold them both in one of mine, and not know that I'd got anything except that they were so soft; but she held those horses in as though they were made of iron. When I wanted to help her she said, 'No thank you: I can manage them myself. I've got a pair of bits that would break their jaws if I used them well,' and she laughed and drove away. It's so unwomanly.
"Tell father my hire of the ground will not be out for six months, and before that Em and I will be married. My pair of birds is breeding now, but I haven't been down to see them for three days. I don't seem to care about anything any more. I don't know what it is; I'm not well. If I go into town on Saturday I will let the doctor examine me; but perhaps she'll go in herself. It's a very strange thing, Jemima, but she never will send her letters to post by me. If I ask her she has none, and the very next day she goes in and posts them herself. You mustn't say anything about it, Jemima, but twice I've brought her letters from the post in a gentleman's hand, and I'm sure they were both from the same person, because I noticed every little mark, even the dotting of the i's.
"Of course it's nothing to me; but for Em's sake I can't help feeling an interest in her, however much I may dislike her myself; and I hope she's up to nothing. I pity the man who marries her; I wouldn't be him for anything. If I had a wife with pride I'd make her give it up, sharp. I don't believe in a man who can't make a woman obey him. Now Em–I'm very fond of her, as you know–but if I tell her to put on a certain dress, that dress she puts on; and if I tell her to sit on a certain seat, on that seat she sits; and if I tell her not to speak to a certain individual, she does not speak to them. If a man lets a woman do what he doesn't like he's a muff.
"Give my love to mother and the children. The veld here is looking pretty good, and the sheep are better since we washed them. Tell father the dip he recommended is very good.
"Em sends her love to you. She is making me some woollen shirts; but they don't fit me so nicely as those mother made me.
"Write soon to
"Your loving brother, Gregory.
"P.S.–She drove past just now; I was sitting on the kraal wall right before her eyes, and she never even bowed. G.N.R."