THE Boers, who ostensibly had come to the kloof to see the shooting match, although, in fact, for a very different purpose, now began to disperse. Some of them rode straight away, while some went to wagons which they had outspanned at a distance, and trekked off to their separate homes. I am glad to say that before they left quite a number of the best of them came up and congratulated me both on the defence of Maraisfontein and on my shooting. Also not a few expressed their views concerning Pereira in very straightforward language.
Now, the arrangement was that my father and I were to sleep that night at Marais’s stead, returning home on the following morning. But my father, who had been a silent but not unobservant witness of all this scene, coming to the conclusion that after what had happened we should scarcely be welcome there, and that the company of Pereira was to be avoided just now, went up to Marais and bade him farewell, saying that we would send for my mare.
“Not so, not so,” he answered, “you are my guests to-night. Also, fear not, Hernan will be away. He has gone a journey upon some business.”
As my father hesitated, Marais added: “Friend, I pray you to come, for I have some important words to say to you, which cannot be said here.”
Then my father gave way, to my delight and relief. For if he had not, what chance would there have been of my getting some still more important words with Marie? So having collected the geese and the two falcons, which I proposed to skin for Marie, I was helped into the cart, and we drove off, reaching Maraisfontein just as night set in.
That evening, after we had eaten, Heer Marais asked my father and myself to speak with him in the sitting-room. By an afterthought also, or so it seemed to me, he told his daughter, who had been clearing away the dishes and with whom as yet I had found no opportunity to talk, to come in with us and close the door behind her.
When all were seated and we men had lit our pipes, though apprehension of what was to follow quite took away my taste for smoking, Marais spoke in English, which he knew to a certain extent. This was for the benefit of my father, who made it a point of honour not to understand Dutch, although he would answer Marais in that language when he pretended not to understand English. To me he spoke in Dutch, and occasionally in French to Marie. It was a most curious and polyglot conversation.
“Young Allan,” he said, “and you, daughter Marie, I have heard stories concerning you that, although I never gave you leave to opsit” (that is, to sit up alone at night with candles, according to the Boer fashion between those who are courting), “you have been making love to each other.”
“That is true, mynheer,” I said. “I only waited an opportunity to tell you that we plighted our troth during the attack of the Quabies on this house.”
“Allemachte! Allan, a strange time to choose,” answered Marais, pulling at his beard; “the troth that is plighted in blood is apt to end in blood.”
“A vain superstition to which I cannot consent,” interrupted my father.
“Perhaps so,” I answered. “I know not; God alone knows. I only know that we plighted our troth when we thought ourselves about to die, and that we shall keep that troth till death ends it.”
“Yes, my father,” added Marie, leaning forward across the scored yellow-wood table, her chin resting on her hand and her dark, buck-like eyes looking him in the face. “Yes, my father, that is so, as I have told you already.”
“And I tell you, Marie, what I have told you already, and you too, Allan, that this thing may not be,” answered Marais, hitting the table with his fist. “I have nothing to say against you, Allan; indeed, I honour you, and you have done me a mighty service, but it may not be.”
“Why not, mynheer?” I asked.
“For three reasons, Allan, each of which is final. You are English, and I do not wish my daughter to marry an Englishman; that is the first. You are poor, which is no discredit to you, and since I am now ruined my daughter cannot marry a poor man; that is the second. You live here, and my daughter and I are leaving this country, therefore you cannot marry her; that is the third,” and he paused.
“Is there not a fourth,” I asked, “which is the real reason? Namely, that you wish your daughter to marry someone else.”
“Yes, Allan; since you force me to it, there is a fourth. I have affianced my daughter to her cousin, Hernando Pereira, a man of substance and full age; no lad, but one who knows his own mind and can support a wife.”
“I understand,” I answered calmly, although within my heart a very hell was raging. “But tell me, mynheer, has Marie affianced herself—or perhaps she will answer with her own lips?”
“Yes, Allan,” replied Marie in her quiet fashion, “I have affianced myself—to you and no other man.”
“You hear, mynheer,” I said to Marais.
Then he broke out in his usual excitable manner. He stormed, he argued, he rated us both. He said that he would never allow it; that first he would see his daughter in her grave. That I had abused his confidence and violated his hospitality; that he would shoot me if I came near his girl. That she was a minor, and according to the law he could dispose of her in marriage. That she must accompany him whither he was going; that certainly I should not do so, and much more of the same sort.
When at last he had tired himself out and smashed his favourite pipe upon the table, Marie spoke, saying:
“My father, you know that I love you dearly, for since my mother’s death we have been everything to each other, have we not?”
“Surely, Marie, you are my life, and more than my life.”
“Very well, my father. That being so, I acknowledge your authority over me, whatever the law may say. I acknowledge that you have the right to forbid me to marry Allan, and if you do forbid me—while I am under age, at any rate—I shall not marry him because of my duty to you. But”—here she rose and looked him full in the eyes, and oh! how stately she seemed at that moment in her simple strength and youthful grace!—“there is one thing, my father, that I do not acknowledge—your right to force me to marry any other man. As a woman with power over herself, I deny that right; and much as it pains me, my father, to refuse you anything, I say that first I will die. To Allan here I have given myself for good or for evil, and if I may not marry Allan, I will go to the grave unwed. If my words hurt you, I pray you to pardon me, but at the same time to remember that they are my words, which cannot be altered.”
Marais looked at his daughter, and his daughter looked at Marais. At first I thought that he was about to curse her; but if this were so, something in her eyes seemed to change his mind, for all he said was:
“Intractable, like the rest of your race! Well, Fate may lead those who cannot be driven, and this matter I leave in the hands of Fate. While you are under age—that is, for two years or more—you may not marry without my consent, and have just promised not to do so. Presently we trek from this country into far-off lands. Who knows what may happen there?”
“Yes,” said my father in a solemn voice, speaking for the first time, “who knows except God, Who governs all things, and will settle these matters according to His will, Henri Marais? Listen,” he went on after a pause, for Marais made no answer, but sat himself down and stared gloomily at the table. “You do not wish my son to marry your daughter for various reasons, of which one is that you think him poor and a richer suitor has offered himself after a reverse of fortune has made you poor. Another and a greater, the true reason, is his English blood, which you hate so much that, although by God’s mercy he saved her life, you do not desire that he should share her life. Is it not true?”
“Yes, it is true, Mynheer Quatermain. You English are bullies and cheats,” he answered excitedly.
“And so you would give your daughter to one who has shown himself humble and upright, to that good hater of the English and plotter against his King, Hernando Pereira, whom you love because he alone is left of your ancient race.”
Remembering the incident of the afternoon, this sarcasm reduced Marais to silence.
“Well,” went on my father, “although I am fond of Marie, and know her to be a sweet and noble-hearted girl, neither do I wish that she should marry my son. I would see him wed to some English woman, and not dragged into the net of the Boers and their plottings. Still, it is plain that these two love each other with heart and soul, as doubtless it has been decreed that they should love. This being so, I tell you that to separate them and force another marriage upon one of them is a crime before God, of which, I am sure, He will take note and pay it back to you. Strange things may happen in those lands whither you go, Henri Marais. Will you not, then, be content to leave your child in safe keeping?”
“Never!” shouted Marais. “She shall accompany me to a new home, which is not under the shadow of your accursed British flag.”
“Then I have no more to say. On your head be it here and hereafter,” replied my father solemnly.
Now unable to control myself any longer I broke in:
“But I have, mynheer. To separate Marie and myself is a sin, and one that will break her heart. As for my poverty, I have something, more perhaps than you think, and in this rich country wealth can be earned by those who work, as I would do for her sake. The man to whom you would give her showed his true nature this day, for he who can play so low a trick to win a wager, will play worse tricks to win greater things. Moreover, the scheme must fail since Marie will not marry him.”
“I say she shall,” replied Marais; “and that whether she does or not, she shall accompany me and not stay here to be the wife of an English boy.”
“Accompany you I will, father, and share your fortunes to the last. But marry Hernando Pereira I will not,” said Marie quietly.
“Perhaps, mynheer,” I added, “days may come when once again you will be glad of the help of an ‘English boy.’”
The words were spoken at random, a kind of ejaculation from the heart, caused by the sting of Marais’s cruelty and insults, like the cry of a beast beneath a blow. Little did I know how true they would prove, but at times it is thus that truth is mysteriously drawn from some well of secret knowledge hidden in our souls.
“When I want your help I will ask for it,” raved Marais, who, knowing himself to be in the wrong, strove to cover up that wrong with violence.
“Asked or unasked, if I live it shall be given in the future as in the past, Mynheer Marais. God pardon you for the woe you are bringing on Marie and on me.”
Now Marie began to weep a little, and, unable to bear that sight, I covered my eyes with my hand. Marais, who, when he was not under the influence of his prejudices or passion, had a kind heart, was moved also, but tried to hide his feelings in roughness. He swore at Marie, and told her to go to bed, and she obeyed, still weeping. Then my father rose and said:
“Henri Marais, we cannot leave here to-night because the horses are kraaled, and it would be difficult to find them in this darkness, so we must ask your hospitality till dawn.”
“I do not ask it,” I exclaimed. “I go to sleep in the cart,” and I limped from the room and the house, leaving the two men together.
What passed afterwards between them I do not quite know. I gathered that my father, who, when roused, also had a temper and was mentally and intellectually the stronger man, told Marais his opinion of his wickedness and folly in language that he was not likely to forget. I believe he even drove him to confess that his acts seemed cruel, excusing them, however, by announcing that he had sworn before God that his daughter should never marry an Englishman. Also he said that he had promised her solemnly to Pereira, his own nephew, whom he loved, and could not break his word.
“No,” answered my father, “because, being mad with the madness that runs before destruction, you prefer to break Marie’s heart and perhaps become guilty of her blood.”
Then he left him.
The darkness was intense. Through it I groped my way to the cart, which stood where it had been outspanned on the veld at a little distance from the house, wishing heartily, so miserable was I, that the Kaffirs might choose that black night for another attack and make an end of me.
When I reached it and lit the lantern which we always carried, I was astonished to find that, in a rough fashion, it had been made ready to sleep in. The seats had been cleared out, the hind curtain fastened, and so forth. Also the pole was propped up with an ox-yoke so as to make the vehicle level to lie in. While I was wondering vaguely who could have done this, Hans climbed on to the step, carrying two karosses which he had borrowed or stolen, and asked if I was comfortable.
“Oh, yes!” I answered; “but why were you going to sleep in the cart?”
“Baas,” he replied, “I was not; I prepared it for you. How did I know that you were coming? Oh, very simply. I sat on the stoep and listened to all the talk in the sitkammer. The window has never been mended, baas, since the Quabies broke it. God in Heaven! what a talk that was. I never knew that white people could have so much to say about a simple matter. You want to marry the Baas Marais’s daughter; the baas wants her to marry another man who can pay more cattle. Well, among us it would soon have been settled, for the father would have taken a stick and beaten you out of the hut with the thick end. Then he would have beaten the girl with the thin end until she promised to take the other man, and all would have been settled nicely. But you Whites, you talk and talk, and nothing is settled. You still mean to marry the daughter, and the daughter still means not to marry the man of many cows. Moreover, the father has really gained nothing except a sick heart and much bad luck to come.”
“Why much bad luck to come, Hans?” I asked idly, for his naïve summing up of the case interested me in a vague way.
“Oh! Baas Allan, for two reasons. First, your reverend father, who made me true Christian, told him so, and a prédicant so good as he, is one down whom the curse of God runs from Heaven like lightning runs down a tree. Well, the Heer Marais was sitting under that tree, and we all know what happens to him who is under a tree when the lightning strikes it. That my first Christian reason. My second black-man reason, about which there can be no mistake, for it has always been true since there was a black man, is that the girl is yours by blood. You saved her life with your blood,” and he pointed to my leg, “and therefore bought her for ever, for blood is more than cattle. Therefore, too, he who would divide her from you brings blood on her and on the other man who tries to steal her, blood, blood! and on himself I know not what.” And he waved his yellow arms, staring up at me with his little black eyes in a way that was most uncanny.
“Nonsense!” I said. “Why do you talk such bad words?”
“Because they are true words, Baas Allan. Oh, you laugh at the poor Totty; but I had it from my father, and he from his father from generation to generation, amen, and you will see. You will see, as I have seen before now, and as the Heer Marais will see, who, if the great God had not made him mad—for mad he is, baas, as we know, if you Whites don’t—might have lived in his home till he was old, and have had a good son-in-law to bury him in his blanket.”
Now I seemed to have had enough of this eerie conversation. Of course it is easy to laugh at natives and their superstitions, but, after a long life of experience, I am bound to admit that they are not always devoid of truth. The native has some kind of sixth sense which the civilised man has lost, or so it seems to me.
“Talking of blankets,” I said in order to change the subject, “from whom did you get these karosses?”
“From whom? Why, from the Missie, of course, baas. When I heard that you were to sleep in the cart I went to her and borrowed them to cover you. Also, I had forgotten, she gave me a writing for you,” and he felt about, first in his dirty shirt, then under his arm, and finally in his fuzzy hair, from which last hiding place he produced a little bit of paper folded into a pellet. I undid it and read these words, written with a pencil and in French:—
“I shall be in the peach orchard half an hour before sunrise. Be there if you would bid me farewell.—M.”
“Is there any answer, baas?” asked Hans when I had thrust the note into my pocket. “If so I can take it without being found out.” Then an inspiration seemed to strike him, and he added: “Why do you not take it yourself? The Missie’s window is easy to open, also I am sure she would be pleased to see you.”
“Be silent,” I said. “I am going to sleep. Wake me an hour before the cock-crow—and, stay—see that the horses have got out of the kraal so that you cannot find them too easily in case the Reverend wishes to start very early. But do not let them wander far, for here we are no welcome guests.”
“Yes, baas. By the way, baas, the Heer Pereira, who tried to cheat you over those geese, is sleeping in an empty house not more than two miles away. He drinks coffee when he wakes up in the morning, and his servant, who makes it, is my good friend. Now would you like me to put a little something into it? Not to kill him, for that is against the law in the Book, but just to make him quite mad, for the Book says nothing about that. If so, I have a very good medicine, one that you white people do not know, which improves the taste of the coffee, and it might save much trouble. You see, if he came dancing about the place without any clothes on, like a common Kaffir, the Heer Marais, although he is really mad also, might not wish for him as a son-in-law.”
“Oh! go to the devil if you are not there already,” I replied, and turned over as though to sleep.
There was no need for me to have instructed that faithful creature, the astute but immoral Hans, to call me early, as the lady did her mother in the poem, for I do not think that I closed an eye that night. I spare my reflections, for they can easily be imagined in the case of an earnest-natured lad who was about to be bereft of his first love.
Long before the dawn I stood in the peach orchard, that orchard where we had first met, and waited. At length Marie came stealing between the tree trunks like a grey ghost, for she was wrapped in some light-coloured garment. Oh! once more we were alone together. Alone in the utter solitude and silence which precede the African dawn, when all creatures that love the night have withdrawn to their lairs and hiding places, and those that love the day still sleep their soundest.
She saw me and stood still, then opened her arms and clasped me to her breast, uttering no word. A while later she spoke almost in a whisper, saying:
“Allan, I must not stay long, for I think that if my father found us together, he would shoot you in his madness.”
Now as always it was of me she thought, not of herself.
“And you, my sweet?” I asked.
“Oh!” she answered, “that matters nothing. Except for the sin of it I wish he would shoot me, for then I should have done with all this pain. I told you, Allan, when the Kaffirs were on us yonder, that it might be better to die; and see, my heart spoke truly.”
“Is there no hope?” I gasped. “Will he really separate us and take you away into the wilderness?”
“Certainly, nothing can turn him. Yet, Allan, there is this hope. In two years, if I live, I shall be of full age, and can marry whom I will; and this I swear, that I will marry none but you, no, not even if you were to die to-morrow.”
“I bless you for those words,” I said.
“Why?” she asked simply. “What others could I speak? Would you have me do outrage to my own heart and go through life faithless and ashamed?”
“And I, I swear also,” I broke in.
“Nay, swear nothing. While I live I know that you will love me, and if I should be taken, it is my wish that you should marry some other good woman, since it is not well or right that man should live alone. With us maids it is different. Listen, Allan, for the cocks are beginning to crow, and soon there will be light. You must bide here with your father. If possible, I will write to you from time to time, telling you where we are and how we fare. But if I do not write, know that it is because I cannot, or because I can find no messenger, or because the letters have miscarried, for we go into wild countries, amongst savages.”
“Whither do you go?” I asked.
“I believe up towards the great harbour called Delagoa Bay, where the Portuguese rule. My cousin Hernan, who accompanies us”—and she shivered a little in my arms—“is half Portuguese. He tells the Boers that he has relations there who have written him many fine promises, saying they will give us good country to dwell in where we cannot be followed by the English, whom he and my father hate so much.”
“I have heard that is all fever veld, and that the country between is full of fierce Kaffirs,” I said with a groan.
“Perhaps. I do not know, and I do not care. At least, that is the notion in my father’s head, though, of course, circumstances may change it. I will try to let you know, Allan, or if I do not, perhaps you will be able to find out for yourself. Then, then, if we both live and you still care for me, who will always care for you, when I am of age, you will join us and, say and do what they may, I will marry no other man. And if I die, as may well happen, oh! then my spirit shall watch over you and wait for you till you join me beneath the wings of God. Look, it grows light. I must go. Farewell, my love, my first and only love, till in life or death we meet again, as meet we shall.”
Once more we clung together and kissed, muttering broken words, and then she tore herself from my embrace and was gone. But oh! as I heard her feet steal through the dew-laden grass, I felt as though my heart were being rent from my breast. I have suffered much in life, but I do not think that ever I underwent a bitterer anguish than in this hour of my parting from Marie. For when all is said and done, what joy is there like the joy of pure, first love, and what bitterness like the bitterness of its loss?
Half an hour later the flowering trees of Maraisfontein were behind us, while in front rolled the fire-swept veld, black as life had become for me.