In the heat of the midday – Oom Schalk Lourens said – Adrian Naudé and I were glad to be resting there, shaded by the tall blue gums that stood in a clump by the side of the road.
I sat on the grass with my head and shoulders supported against a large stone. Adrian Naudé, who had begun by leaning against a tree-trunk with his legs crossed and his fingers interlaced behind his head and his elbows out, lowered himself to the ground by degrees; for a short while he remained seated on his haunches; then he sighed and slid forward, very carefully, until he was lying stretched out at full length, with his face in the grass.
‘It’s not so bad for you, Neef Schalk,’ Adrian Naudé went on, yawning. ‘You’ve got a big comfortable stone to rest your head and shoulders against. Whereas I’ve got to lie flat down on the dry grass with all the sharp points sticking into me. You are always like that, Neef Schalk. You always pick the best for yourself.’
By the unreasonable nature of his remarks, I could tell that Adrian Naudé was being overtaken by a spell of drowsiness.
‘You are always like that,’ Adrian went on. ‘It’s one of the low traits of your character. Always picking the best for yourself. There was that time in Zeerust, for instance. People always mention that – when they want to talk about how low a man can be …’
I could see that the heat of the day and his condition of being half asleep might lead Adrian to say things that he would no doubt be very sorry for afterwards. So I interrupted him, speaking very earnestly for his own good.
‘It’s quite true, Neef Adrian,’ I said, ‘that this stone against which I am lying is the only one in the vicinity. But I can’t help that any more than I can help this clump of blue gums being here. It’s funny about these blue gums, now, growing like this by the side of the road, when the rest of the veld around here is bare. I wonder who planted them. As for this stone, Neef Adrian, it’s not my fault that I saw it first. It was just luck. But you can knock out your pipe against it whenever you want to.’
This offer seemed to satisfy Adrian. At all events, he didn’t pursue the argument. I noticed that his breathing had become very slow and deep and regular; and the last remark that he made was so muffled as to be almost unintelligible. It was: ‘To think that a man can fall so low.’
From that I judged that Adrian Naudé was dreaming about something.
It was very pleasant there, on the yellow grass, by the roadside, underneath the blue gums, whose shadows slowly lengthened as midday passed into afternoon. Nowhere was there sound or movement. The whole world was at rest, with the silence of the dust on the deserted road, with the peace of the blue gums’ shadows. My companion’s measured breathing seemed to come from very far away.
Then it was that a strange thing happened.
What is in the first place remarkable about the circumstances that I am now going to relate to you is that it shows you clearly how short a dream is. And how much you can dream in just a few moments. In the second place, as you’ll see when I get to the end of it, this story proves how, right in broad daylight, a queer thing can take place – almost in front of your eyes, as it were – and you may wonder about it forever afterwards, and you will never understand it.
Well, as I was saying, what with Adrian Naudé lying asleep within a few feet of me, and everything being so still, I was on the point of also dropping off to sleep, when, in the distance – so small that I could barely distinguish its outlines – I caught the sight of the mule-cart whose return Adrian and I were awaiting. From where I lay, with my head on the stone, I had a clear view of the road all the way up to where it disappeared over the bult.
But as I gazed I felt my eyelids getting heavy. I told myself that, with the glare of the sun on the road, I would not be able to keep my eyes open much longer. I remember thinking how foolish it would be to fall asleep, then, with the mule-cart only a short distance away. It would pull up almost immediately, and I would have to wake up again. I told myself I was being foolish – and, of course, I fell asleep.
It was while I was still telling myself that in a few moments the mule-cart would be coming to a stop in the shadow of the blue gums, that my eyes closed and I fell asleep. And I started to dream. And from this you can tell how swift a thing a dream is, and how much you can dream in just a few moments.
For I know the exact moment in which I started to dream. It was when I was looking very intently at the driver of the mule-cart and I suddenly saw, to my amazement, that the driver was no longer Jonas, but Adrian Naudé. And seated beside Adrian Naudé was a girl in a white frock. She had yellow hair that hung far down over her shoulders, and her name was Francina. The next minute the mule-cart drew up, and Jonas jumped off and tied the reins to a wheel.
So it was between those flying moments that I dreamt about Adrian Naudé and Francina.
‘It’s difficult to believe, Francina,’ Adrian Naudé was saying, nodding his head in my direction. ‘It’s difficult to believe a man can sink so low. If I tell you what happened in Zeerust …’
I was getting annoyed now. After all, Francina was a complete stranger, and Adrian had no right to slander me in that fashion. What was more, I had a very simple explanation of the Zeerust incident. I felt that, if only I could be alone with Francina for a few minutes, I would be able to convince her that what had happened in Zeerust was not to my discredit at all.
But even as I started to talk to Francina, I realised that there was no need for me to say anything. She put her hand on my arm and looked at me; and the sun was on her hair and the shadows of the blue gums were in her eyes; and by the way she smiled at me, I knew that nothing Adrian could say about me would ever make any difference to her.
Moreover, Adrian Naudé had gone. You know how it is in a dream.
Then it all changed, suddenly. I seemed to know that it was only a dream and that I wasn’t really standing up under the trees with Francina. I seemed to know that I was actually lying on the grass, with my head and shoulders resting against a stone. I even heard the mule-cart jolting over the rough part of the road.
But the next instant I was dreaming again.
I dreamt that Francina was explaining to me, in gentle and sorrowful tones, that she couldn’t stay any longer; and that she had put her hand on my arm for the last time, in farewell; she said I was not to follow her, but that I had to close my eyes when she turned away; for no one was to know where she had come from.
It was a vivid dream. Part of it seemed more real than life, as is frequently the case with a dream on the veld, dreamt fleetingly, in the heat of the noonday.
I asked Francina where she lived.
‘Not far from here,’ she answered, ‘no, not far. But you may not follow me. None may go back with me.’
She still smiled, in that way in which women smiled long ago, but as she spoke there came into her eyes a look of such intense sorrow that I was afraid to ask why I could not accompany her. And when she told me to close my eyes, I had no power to protest.
And, of course, I didn’t close my eyes. Instead, I opened them. Just as Jonas was jumping down from the mule-cart to fasten the reins onto a wheel.
Adrian Naudé woke up about the same time that I did, and asked Jonas why he had been away so long. And I got up from the grass, and stretched my limbs, and wondered about dreams. It seemed incredible that I could have dreamed so much in such a few moments.
And there was a strange sadness in my heart because the dream had gone. My mind was filled with a deep sense of loss. I told myself that it was foolish to have feelings like that about a dream: even though it was a particularly vivid dream, and part of it seemed more real than life.
Then, when we were ready to go, Adrian Naudé took out his pipe; before filling it he stooped down as though to knock the ash out of it, as I had invited him to do before we fell asleep. But it so happened that Adrian Naudé did not ever knock his pipe out against that stone.
‘That’s funny,’ I heard Adrian say, as he bent forward.
I saw what he was about; so I knelt down and helped him. When we had cleared away the accumulation of yellow grass and dead leaves at the foot of the stone, we found that the inscription on it, though battered, was quite legible. It was very simply worded. Just a date chiselled into the stone. And below the date, a name: Francina Malherbe.