It had been a princely day. The long morning had melted slowly into a rich afternoon. Rains had covered the karoo with a heavy coat of green that hid the red earth everywhere. In the very chinks of the stone walls dark green leaves hung out, and beauty and growth had crept even into the beds of the sandy furrows and lined them with weeds. On the broken sod walls of the old pigsty chick-weeds flourished, and ice-plants lifted heir transparent leaves. Waldo was at work in the wagon-house again. He was making a kitchen table for Em. As the long curls gathered in heaps before his plane, he paused for an instant now and again to throw one down to a small naked nigger, who had crept from its mother, who stood churning in the sunshine, and had crawled into the wagon-house.
From time to time the little animal lifted its fat hand as it expected a fresh shower of curls; till Doss, jealous of his master's noticing any other small creature but himself, would catch the curl in his mouth and roll the little Kaffer over in the sawdust, much to that small animal's contentment. It was too lazy an afternoon to be really ill-natured, so Doss satisfied himself with snapping at the little nigger's fingers, and sitting on him till he laughed. Waldo, as he worked, glanced down at them now and then, and smiled; but he never looked out across the plain. He was conscious without looking of that broad green earth; it made his work pleasant to him. Near the shadow at the gable the mother of the little nigger stood churning. Slowly she raised and let fall the stick in her hands, murmuring to herself a sleepy chant such as her people love; it sounded like the humming of far-off bees.
A different life showed itself in the front of the house, where Tant Sannie's cart stood ready inspanned and the Boer-woman herself sat in the front room drinking coffee.
She had come to visit her stepdaughter, probably for the last time, as she now weighed two hundred and sixty pounds, and was not easily able to move. On a chair sat her mild young husband nursing the baby–a pudding-faced, weak-eyed child.
"You take it and get into the cart with it," said Tant Sannie. "What do you want here, listening to our woman's talk?"
The young man arose, and meekly went out with the baby.
"I'm very glad you are going to be married, my child," said Tant Sannie, as she drained the last drop from her coffee cup. "I wouldn't say so while that boy was here, it would make him too conceited; but marriage is the finest thing in the world. I've been at it three times, and if it pleased God to take this husband from me I should have another. There's nothing like it, my child; nothing."
"Perhaps it might not suit all people, at all times, as well as it suits you, Tant Sannie," said Em. There was a little shade of weariness in the voice.
"Not suit every one!" said Tant Sannie. "If the beloved Redeemer didn't mean men to have wives what did He make women for? That's what I say. If a woman's old enough to marry, and doesn't, she's sinning against the Lord- -it's a wanting to know better than Him. What, does she think the Lord took all that trouble in making her for nothing? It's evident He wants babies, otherwise why does He send them? Not that I've done much in that way myself," said Tant Sannie, sorrowfully; "but I've done my best."
She rose with some difficulty from her chair, and began moving slowly toward the door.
"It's a strange thing," she said, "but you can't love a man till you've had a baby by him. Now there's that boy there, when we were first married if he only sneezed in the night I boxed his ears; now if he lets his pipe-ash come on my milk-cloths I don't think of laying a finger on him. There's nothing like being married," said Tant Sannie, as she puffed toward the door. "If a woman's got a baby and a husband she's got the best things the Lord can give her; if only the baby doesn't have convulsions. As for a husband, it's very much the same who one has. Some men are fat, and some men are thin; some men drink brandy, and some men drink gin; but it all comes to the same thing in the end; it's all one. A man's a man, you know."
Here they came upon Gregory, who was sitting in the shade before the house. Tant Sannie shook hands with him.
"I'm glad you're going to get married," she said. "I hope you'll have as many children in five years as a cow has calves, and more too. I think I'll just go and have a look at your soap-pot before I start," she said, turning to Em. "Not that I believe in this new plan of putting soda in the pot. If the dear Father had meant soda to be put into soap what would He have made milk-bushes for, and stuck them all over the veld as thick as lambs in the lambing season?"
She waddled off after Em in the direction of the built-in soap-pot, leaving Gregory as they found him, with his dead pipe lying on the bench beside him, and his blue eyes gazing out far across the flat, like one who sits on the seashore watching that which is fading, fading from him.
Against his breast was a letter found in the desk addressed to himself, but never posted. It held only four words: "You must marry Em." He wore it in a black bag round his neck. It was the only letter she had ever written to him.
"You see if the sheep don't have the scab this year!" said Tant Sannie as she waddled after Em. "It's with all these new inventions that the wrath of God must fall on us. What were the children of Israel punished for, if it wasn't for making a golden calf? I may have my sins, but I do remember the tenth commandment: 'Honour thy father and mother that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest live long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee!' It's all very well to say we honour them, and then to be finding out things that they never knew, and doing things in a way that they never did them! My mother boiled soap with bushes, and I will boil soap with bushes. If the wrath of God is to fall upon this land," said Tant Sannie, with the serenity of conscious virtue, "it shall not be through me."
"Let them make their steam-wagons and their fire-carriages; let them go on as though the dear Lord didn't know what he was about when He gave horses and oxen legs–the destruction of the Lord will follow them. I don't know how such people read their Bibles. When do we hear of Moses or Noah riding in a railway? The Lord sent fire-carriages out of heaven in those days: there's no chance of His sending them for us if we go on in this way," said Tant Sannie sorrowfully, thinking of the splendid chance which this generation had lost.
Arrived at the soap-pot she looked over into it thoughtfully.
"Depend upon it you'll get the itch, or some other disease; the blessing of the Lord'll never rest upon it," said the Boer-woman. Then suddenly she broke forth. "And she eighty-two, and goats, and rams, and eight thousand morgen, and the rams real angora, and two thousand sheep, and a short-horn bull," said Tant Sannie, standing upright and planting a hand on each hip.
Em looked at her in silent wonder. Had connubial bliss and the joys of motherhood really turned the old Boer-woman's head?
"Yes," said Tant Sannie; "I had almost forgotten to tell you. By the Lord if I had him here! We were walking to church last Sacrament Sunday, Piet and I. Close in front of us with old Tant Trana, with dropsy and cancer, and can't live eight months. Walking by her was something with its hands under its coat-tails, flap, flap, flap; and its chin in the air, and a stick-up collar, and the black hat on the very back of the head. I knew him! 'Who's that?' I asked. 'The rich Englishman that Tant Trana married last week.' 'Rich Englishman! I'll rich Englishman him,' I said; 'I'll tell Tant Trana a thing or two. My fingers were just in his little white curls. If it hadn't been the blessed Sacrament, he wouldn't have walked so sourka, sourka, sourka, any more. But I thought. Wait till I've had it, and then–. But he, sly fox, son of Satan, seed of the Amalekite, he saw me looking at him in the church.
"The blessed Sacrament wasn't half over when he takes Tant Trana by the arm, and out they go. I clap my baby down to its father, and I go after them. But," said Tant Sannie, regretfully, "I couldn't get up to them; I am too fat. When I got to the corner he was pulling Tant Trana up into the cart. 'Tant Trana,' I said, 'you've married a Kaffer's dog, a Hottentot's brakje.' I hadn't any more breath. He winked at me; he winked at ME," said Tant Sannie, her sides shaking with indignation, "first with one eye, and then with the other, and then drove away. Child of the Amalekite!" said Tant Sannie, "if it hadn't been the blessed Sacrament. Lord, Lord, Lord!"
Here the little Bush-girl came running to say that the horses would stand no longer, and still breathing out vengeance against her old adversary she laboured toward the cart. Shaking hands and affectionately kissing Em, she was with some difficulty drawn up. Then slowly the cart rolled away, the good Boer-woman putting her head out between the sails to smile and nod.
Em stood watching it for a time, then as the sun dazzled her eyes she turned away. There was no use in going to sit with Gregory! he liked best sitting there alone, staring across the the green karoo; and till the maid had done churning there was nothing to do; so Em walked away to the wagon- house, and climbed on to the end of Waldo's table, and sat there, swinging one little foot slowly to and fro, while the wooden curls from the plane heaped themselves up against her black print dress.
"Waldo," she said at last, "Gregory has given me the money he got for the wagon and oxen, and I have fifty pounds besides that once belonged to some one. I know what they would have liked to have done with it. You must take it and go to some place and study for a year or two."
"No, little one, I will not take it," he said, as he planed slowly away; "the time was when I would have been very grateful to any one who would have given me a little money, a little help, a little power of gaining knowledge. But now, I have gone so far alone I may go on to the end. I don't want it, little one."
She did not seem pained at his refusal, but swung her foot to and fro, the little old wrinkled forehead more wrinkled up than ever.
"Why is it always so, Waldo, always so?" she said; "we long for things, and long for them, and pray for them; we would give all we have to come near to them, but we never reach them. Then at last, too late, just when we don't want them any more, when all the sweetness is taken out of them, then they come. We don't want them then," she said, folding their hands resignedly on her little apron. After a while she added: "I remember once, very long ago, when I was a very little girl, my mother had a workbox full of coloured reels. I always wanted to play with them, but she would never let me. At last one day she said I might take the box. I was so glad I hardly knew what to do. I ran round the house, and sat down with it on the back steps. But when I opened the box all the cottons were taken out."
She sat for a while longer, till the Kaffer maid had finished churning, and was carrying the butter toward the house. Then Em prepared to slip off the table, but first she laid her little hand on Waldo's. He stopped his planing and looked up.
"Gregory is going to the town tomorrow. He is going to give in our bans to the minister; we are going to be married in three weeks."
Waldo lifted her very gently from the table. He did not congratulate her; perhaps he thought of the empty box, but he kissed her forehead gravely.
She walked away toward the house, but stopped when she got half-way. "I will bring you a glass of buttermilk when it is cool," she called out; and soon her clear voice came ringing out through the back windows as she sang the "Blue Water" to herself, and washed the butter.
Waldo did not wait till she returned. Perhaps he had at last really grown weary of work; perhaps he felt the wagon-house chilly (for he had shuddered two or three times), though this was hardly likely in that warm summer weather; or, perhaps, and most probably, one of his old dreaming fits had come upon him suddenly.
He put his tools together, ready for tomorrow, and walked slowly out. At the side of the wagon-house there was a world of bright sunshine, and a hen with her chickens was scratching among the gravel. Waldo seated himself near them with his back against the red-brick wall. The long afternoon was half spent, and the kopje was just beginning to cast its shadow over the round-headed yellow flowers that grew between it and the farmhouse. Among the flowers the white butterflies hovered and on the old kraal mounds three white kids gambolled, and at the door of one of the huts an old grey-headed Kaffer-woman sat on the ground mending her mats. A balmy, restful peacefulness seemed to reign everywhere. Even the old hen seemed well satisfied. She scratched among the stones and called to her chickens when she found a treasure; and all the while tucked to herself with intense inward satisfaction.
Waldo, as he sat with his knees drawn up to his chin and his arms folded on them, looked at it all and smiled. An evil world, a deceitful, treacherous, mirage-like world it might be; but a lovely world for all that, and to sit there gloating in the sunlight was perfect. It was worth having been a little child, and having cried and prayed so one might sit there. He moved his hands as though he were washing them in the sunshine. There will always be something worth living for while there are shimmery afternoons. Waldo chuckled with intense inward satisfaction as the old hen had done–she, over the insects and the warmth; he, over the old brick walls, and the haze, and the little bushes. Beauty is God's wine, with which He recompenses the souls that love Him; He makes them drunk.
The fellow looked, and at last stretched out one hand to a little ice-plant that grew on the sod wall of the sty; not as though he would have picked it, but as it were in a friendly greeting. He loved it. One little leaf of the ice-plant stood upright, and the sun shone through it. He could see every little crystal cell like a drop of ice in the transparent green, and it thrilled him.
There are only rare times when a man's soul can see Nature.
So long as any passion holds its revel there, the eyes are holden that they should not see her.
Go out if you will and walk alone on the hillside in the evening, but if your favourite child lies ill at home, or your lover comes tomorrow, or at your heart there lies a scheme for the holding of wealth, then you will return as you went out; you will have seen nothing. For Nature, ever, like the Old Hebrew God, cries out, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Only then, when there comes a pause, a blank in your life, when the old idol is broken, when the old hope is dead, when the old desire is crushed, then the Divine compensation of Nature is made manifest. She shows herself to you. So near she draws you, that the blood seems to flow from her to you, through a still uncut cord: you feel the throb of her life.
When that day comes, that you sit down broken, without one human creature to whom you cling, with your loves the dead and the living-dead; when the very thirst for knowledge through long-continued thwarting has grown dull; when in the present there is no craving, and in the future no hope, then, oh, with a beneficent tenderness, Nature infolds you.
Then the large white snow-flakes as they flutter down, softly, one by one, whisper soothingly, "Rest, poor heart, rest!" It is as though our mother smoothed our hair, and we are comforted.
And yellow-legged bees as they hum make a dreamy lyric; and the light on the brown stone wall is a great work of art; and the glitter through the leaves makes the pulses beat.
Well to die then; for, if you live, so surely as the years come, so surely as the spring succeeds the winter, so surely will passions arise. They will creep back, one by one, into the bosom that has cast them forth, and fasten there again, and peace will go. Desire, ambition, and the fierce agonizing flood of love for the living they will spring again. Then Nature will draw down her veil; with all your longing you shall not be able to raise one corner; you cannot bring back those peaceful days. Well to die then!
Sitting there with his arms folded on his knees, and his hat slouched down over his face, Waldo looked out into the yellow sunshine that tinted even the very air with the colour of ripe corn, and was happy.
He was an uncouth creature with small learning, and no prospect in the future but that of making endless tables and stone walls, yet it seemed to him as he sat there that life was a rare and very rich thing. He rubbed his hands in the sunshine. Ah, to live on so, year after year, how well! Always in the present; letting each day glide, bringing its own labour, and its own beauty; the gradual lighting up of the hills, night and the stars, firelight and the coals! To live on so, calmly, far from the paths of men; and to look at the lives of clouds and insects; to look deep into the heart of flowers, and see how lovingly the pistil and the stamens nestle there together; and to see in the thorn-pods how the little seeds suck their life through the delicate curled-up string, and how the little embryo sleeps inside! Well, how well, to sit so on one side taking no part in the world's life; but when great men blossom into books looking into those flowers also, to see how the world of men too opens beautifully, leaf after leaf. Ah! life is delicious; well to live long, and see the darkness breaking, and the day coming! The day when soul shall not thrust back soul that would come to it; when men shall not be driven to seek solitude because of the crying-out of their hearts for love and sympathy. Well to live long and see the new time breaking. Well to live long; life is sweet, sweet, sweet! In his breast pocket, where of old the broken slate used to be, there was now a little dancing shoe of his friend who was sleeping. He could feel it when he folded his arm tight against his breast; and that was well also. He drew his hat lower over his eyes and sat so motionless that the chickens thought he was asleep, and gathered closer around him. One even ventured to peck at his boot, but he ran away quickly. Tiny, yellow fellow that he was, he knew that men were dangerous; even sleeping they might awake. But Waldo did not sleep, and coming back from his sunshiny dream, stretched out his hand for the tiny thing to mount. But the chicken eyed the hand, and then ran off to hide under its mother's wing, and from beneath it it sometimes put out its round head to peep at the great figure sitting there. Presently its brothers ran off after a little white moth and it ran out to join them; and when the moth fluttered away over their heads they stood looking up disappointed, and then ran back to their mother.
Waldo through his half-closed eyes looked at them. Thinking, fearing, craving, those tiny sparks of brother life, what were they, so real there in that old yard on that sunshiny afternoon? A few years–where would they be? Strange little brother spirits! He stretched his hand toward them, for his heart went out to them; but not one of the little creatures came nearer him, and he watched them gravely for a time; then he smiled, and began muttering to himself after his old fashion. Afterward he folded his arms upon his knees, and rested his forehead on them. And so he sat there in the yellow sunshine, muttering, muttering, muttering, to himself.
It was not very long after when Em came out at the back door with a towel thrown across her head, and in her hand a cup of milk.
"Ah," she said, coming close to him, "he is sleeping now. He will find it when he wakes, and be glad of it."
She put it down upon the ground beside him. The mother-hen was at work still among the stones, but the chickens had climbed about him and were perching on him. One stood upon his shoulder, and rubbed its little head softly against his black curls: another tried to balance itself on the very edge of the old felt hat. One tiny fellow stood upon his hand, and tried to crow; another had nestled itself down comfortably on the old coat- sleeve and gone to sleep there.
Em did not drive them away; but she covered the glass softly at his side. "He will wake soon," she said, "and be glad of it."
But the chickens were wiser.