From Ox-wagons On Trek
by Herman Charles Bosman
When I see the rain beating white on the thorn-trees, as it does now (Oom Schalk Lourens said), I remember another time when it rained. And there was a girl in an ox-wagon who dreamed. And in answer to her dreaming, a lover came galloping to her side from out of the veld. But he tarried only a short while, this lover who had come to her from the mist of the rain and the warmth of her dreams.
And yet, when he had gone, there was a slow look in her eyes that must have puzzled her lover very much – for it was a look of satisfaction, almost.
We had been to Zeerust for the Nagmaal church service, which we attended once a year.
You know what it is with these Nagmaals.
The Lord spreads these festivities over so many days that you have time, not only to go to church, but also to go to the bioscope. Sometimes you can even go to the bar, but then you must go in the back way, through the dark alley next to the draper’s shop.
Zeerust is a small place, and if you’re seen going into the bar during Nagmaal, people are liable to talk. I can still remember how surprised I was one morning when I went into that dark alley next to the draper’s shop, and found the predikant there, wiping his mouth. The predikant looked at me and shook his head solemnly, and I felt very guilty.
So I went to the bioscope instead.
A few days later five ox-wagons, full of people who had been to the Zeerust Nagmaal, were trekking along the road that led back to the Groot Marico. Inside the wagon-tents sat the women and children, listening to the rain pelting against the canvas. The drivers walked by the side of the oxen, cracking their long whips while the rain beat in their faces.
Overhead everything was black, except for the frequent flashes of lightening that tore across the sky.
After I had walked in this manner for some time, I began to get lonely. So I handed the whip to my voorloper, and went on ahead to Adriaan Brand’s wagon. For some distance I walked in silence beside Adriaan. He had his trousers rolled up to his knees; and he had much trouble brandishing his whip and, at the same time, keeping the rain out of his pipe.
‘It’s Minnie,’ Adriaan Brand said suddenly, referring to his nineteen-year-old daughter. ‘There’s one place in Zeerust where Minnie shouldn’t go. And every Nagmaal, to my sorrow, I find that she’s been there. And it all goes to her head.’
‘Oh yes,’ I answered. ‘It always does.’
All the same, I was somewhat startled at Adriaan’s remarks. Minnie didn’t strike me as the sort of girl who would go and spend her father’s money drinking peach brandy in the bar. I started wondering if she’d seen me in the draper’s alley. Then Adriaan went on talking, and I felt more at ease.
‘The place where they show those moving pictures,’ he explained. ‘Every time Minnie goes there, she comes back with ideas that are useless for a farmer’s daughter. But this time it has made her quite impossible. For one thing, she says she won’t marry Frans du Toit any more. She says Frans is too honest.’
‘Well, that needn’t be a difficulty, Adriaan,’ I said. ‘You can teach Frans du Toit a few of the things you’ve done. That’ll make him dishonest enough. Like the way you put your brand on those oxen that strayed into your kraal. Or the way you altered the figures on the compensation forms after the rinderpest. Or the way …’.
Adriaan looked at me with some disfavour.
‘It isn’t that,’ he interrupted me, while I was still trying to call to mind a lot of other things he was able to teach Frans du Toit. ‘Minnie wants a mysterious sort of man. She wants a man who’s dishonest, but who’s got foreign manners and a good heart. She saw a man like that at the picture place she went to, and since then …’.
We both looked round together.
Through the mist of the white rain, a horseman came galloping up towards our wagons. He rode fast. Adriaan Brand and I stood and watched him.
By this time our wagons were some distance behind the others.
The horseman came thundering along at full galop until he was abreast of us. Then he pulled up sharply, jerking his horse onto his hind legs.
The stranger told us his name was Koos Fichardt, and that he was on his way to the Bechuanaland Protectorate. Adriaan Brand and I introduced ourselves, and shortly afterwards Fichardt accepted our invitation to spend the night with us.
We outspanned a mile or so further on, drawing the five wagons up close together and getting what shelter we could by spreading bucksails.
Next morning there was no more rain. By that time, Koos Fichardt had seen Adriaan Brand’s daughter Minnie. So he decided to stay with us longer.
We trekked on again and, from where I walked beside my oxen, I could see Koos Fichardt and Minnie. They sat at the back of Adriaan Brand’s wagon, hatless, with their legs hanging down and the morning breeze blowing through their hair, and it was evident that Minnie was fascinated by the stranger. Also, he seemed to be very much interested in her.
You do get like that, when there is suddenly a bright morning after long rains, and a low wind stirs the wet grass, and you feel, for a little while, that you know the same thing that the veld knows, and in your heart there are whisperings.
Most of the time they sat holding hands, Fichardt talking a great deal and Minnie nodding her pretty head at intervals, encouraging him to continue. They were all lies he told her, I suppose, as only a young man in love can tell lies.
Fichardt was tall and dark and well-dressed. He walked with a swagger. He had easy and engaging manners, and we all liked him.
That night, when we outspanned next to the Groen River, it was very pleasant. We all gathered around the campfire, and braaied meat and cooked crushed mielies. We sang songs and told ghost stories. And I wondered what Frans du Toit – the honest youth whom Minnie had discarded in Zeerust – would have thought if he could see Minnie Brand and Koos Fichardt sitting unashamedly in each other’s arms, for all the world to see their love, while the light of the campfire cast a rich glow over the thrill that was on their faces.
And although I knew how wonderful were the passing moments for these two, yet somehow, somehow, because I had seen so much of the world, I also felt sorry for them.
The next day we did not trek.
The Groen River was in flood from the heavy rains, and Oupa van Tonder, who had lived a long time in the Cape and was well versed in the ways of rivers – and who even knew how to swim – told us that it would not be safe to cross the drift for another twenty-four hours. Accordingly, we decided to remain camped out where we were until the next morning.
At first Koos Fichardt was much disturbed by this news, explaining how necessary it was for him to get into the Bechuanaland Protectorate by a certain day. After a while, however, he seemed to grow more reconciled to the necessity of waiting until the river had gone down.
But I noticed that he frequently gazed out over the veld, in the direction from which we had come. He gazed out rather anxiously, I thought.
Night came, and the occupants of the five wagons again gathered around the blazing fire. In some ways, that night was even grander than the one before. The songs we sang were more rousing. The stories we told seemed to have more power in them.
There was much excitement the following morning by the time the wagons were ready to go through the drift. And the excitement did not lie only in the bustle of inspanning the oxen.
For when we crossed the river, it was without Koos Fichardt; and there was a slow look in Minnie’s eyes.
The wagons creaked and splashed in the water, and we saw Koos Fichardt for the last time, sitting on his horse, with a uniformed horseman on either side of him. And when he took off his hat in farewell, he had to use both hands, because of the cuffs that held his wrists together.
What I will always remember, however, is the slow look in Minnie’s eyes. It was a kind of satisfaction, almost, at the thought that all the things that had come to the girl she’d seen in the picture, had now come to her too.