From ‘Rolled Gold’
In Jurie Steyn’s Post Office
by Herman Charles Bosman
It was the first time young Vermaak had come to visit us, in Jurie Steyn’s post office, since his marriage to Pauline Gerber. We could see, in several ways, the difference it had already made to the schoolmaster, to be married to the daughter of a wealthy Bushveld farmer like old Gerber.
For one thing, young Vermaak was now smoking expensive cigarettes out of a cigarette case, made of a yellowish metal, that he passed round to us, so that we could help ourselves to a cigarette and, at the same time, see the big curved lines of his initials engraved on the lid.
We knew that the schoolmaster’s initials had certainly not been, by any means, so important before he had married Pauline Gerber.
‘If I had a cigarette case like that,’ Gysbert van Tonder said to young Vermaak, in handing it back to him, ‘I wouldn’t have had the letters of my Christian name and my surname cut into it so big and so fat. And so deep. I mean, think of how much gold gets scooped off, that way. It’s a wonder that the Zeerust watchmaker who did the job didn’t write his own name on it as well, and his address, so that he could prune off a whole lot more gold for himself.’
Young Vermaak gazed at Gysbert van Tonder with a thin smile.
If the jeweller’s engraver had been set that shallow, there would have been no mark at all made on the cigarette case lid.
‘It wasn’t a Zeerust watchmaker,’ young Vermaak announced. ‘My monogram was engraved by a Johannesburg firm.’
‘I don’t know whether I shouldn’t give up teaching for a while,’ he said. ‘I would like to improve my mind, so that I can fit in better – in the world of intellect and culture. I want to have breadth to my mind, and outlook. I’ve been reading a book that describes the cramping influences that fetter the spirit, like a vinculum. A vinculum is the Latin word for a chain.’
Gysbert van Tonder said that if that was all that was worrying the schoolmaster, then he was certainly in the right place, now, at Welgevonden, for being able to enlarge his knowledge of the world. Oom Koos Gerber, young Vermaak’s father-in-law, Gysbert van Tonder said, was easily the most broadminded man in this part of the Marico.
‘I mean, just take the way Oom Koos Gerber made all his money,’ Gysbert van Tonder proceeded. ‘Well, if that’s not broadminded, then I don’t know what is. I mean, the Bechuanas – as far as Malopolole – know how broadminded Oom Koos Gerber is – to this day – about what brand-marks there are on the cattle he brings back to the Transvaal. That’s why the Bechuanas have given him the name of RaSakèng. It means “He-Who-Walks-Too-Near-The-
‘So you should perhaps not start getting too broadminded, straight away. Otherwise you’ll find your wrists fastened together with a … what was that foreign word you used?’
‘Vinculum,’ interjected At Naudé, who was quick at picking up languages.
After an interval of silence, the schoolmaster, having first self consciously cleared his throat, proceeded to deal with the matters on which we could sense he had really come to enlighten us.
‘I’ve booked for a number of the Grand Operas in Johannesburg,’ he said. ‘I feel that that will open up a new world of culture to me. Vision is what I’ll get, I think.’
We could see, from the way he opened his mouth, that Gysbert van Tonder was going to ask if that was a new word for ‘time’.
‘It’s some of the true glory of European culture coming here to South Africa,’ young Vermaak went on quickly, before Gysbert van Tonder could make any more disguised references to the penalties for cattle-theft.
‘And I think I’ll be a better schoolteacher, and more of a credit to the Education Department, for having gone. You’ve got to wear an evening dress-suit, with tails.’
That was how you had to go to the Grand Opera in Johannesburg today, the schoolmaster added. And that was what gave Chris Welman, who had once worked on the mines, his chance to be sarcastic.
‘I suppose you’ve also got to carry the right sort of dinner-pail,’ Chris Welman said, thinking of the times when he had been wont to present himself for the night-shift at number three shaft (and of how his colleagues would laugh at an underground man who wasn’t de règle, but had his sandwiches wrapped in an odd piece of newspaper). ‘And at the Opera, I suppose, you’ve also got to wear the right kind of bicycle-clips with your evening dress-suit pants.’
Nevertheless, no matter what we might have pretended to the contrary, the fact was that we stood in a good deal of awe of what young Vermaak had said about the culture of Europe.
It was in recognition of this that Jurie Steyn, as though doffing his hat to the traditions of old cities, enquired of the schoolmaster, reluctantly, as to what an Opera was, exactly.
So young Vermaak got his chance to spread himself, after all.
‘An Opera,’ he said, ‘is a play, just like Vertrapte harte or Die dominee se verlossing or Liefde op die ashoop. It’s like any play they have in the hall next to the flour-mill at Bekkersdal, except that it’s all songs and music.
‘When the warder tells the condemned man that the noise of falling bricks is the hangman’s footsteps on the stairs, the warder sings it. And when the condemned man gets a sack pulled over his head before being hanged – like in the play Frikkie se laaste ongeluk – then the condemned man comes to the front of the stage and sings his last words.
‘But what it sounds like, coming through a black sack and all, I wouldn’t know. I’ve just learned about Opera from reading books about it. That’s why I’d like to see how it’s actually done on the stage.’
Gysbert van Tonder looked pleased with himself, suddenly. It seemed as though he had not been too far wrong, in having warned the schoolmaster of the dangers that lay in being too broadminded.
‘You don’t only get those vinculum things on your feet, from having your ideas go too wide,’ Gysbert van Tonder assured young Vermaak, solemnly. ‘There’s that sack over your head, also. It’s how one thing just sort of leads to another.’
The schoolmaster flared up, then. He said he hadn’t come to Jurie Steyn’s post office to be insulted. And here was Gysbert van Tonder talking about him as though he were already a cattle-smuggler and a cattle-thief – and worse. A lot worse, the schoolmaster added – thinking, no doubt, of that sack.
Thereupon At Naudé advised young Vermaak to ignore Gysbert van Tonder. He needn’t talk, was the way At Naudé phrased it. In any case, At Naudé said, we were all eager to learn more about Opera, and if people in the Operas got vinculums put on them, also, well, he was sure it was for more high-minded things than just cattle-smuggling and stock-theft.
But the schoolmaster said that, strangely enough, from what he had read in his book, there was one Opera that was just like that, more or less.
The cattle part, he said, came in the scene that was called ‘Exterior of the Bull-Fighting Arena’. And he said that when that Opera was first produced in Paris or Munich or Rome or Sweden, or somewhere – he forgot where, exactly, now, but it was some foreign place … Moscow likely – then when the curtain went up on the ‘Exterior of the Bull-Fighting Arena’ scene, the audience all applauded when they heard a bellowing, because they expected a real live bull to come prancing onto the stage, right up to the footlights.
But the audience was very disappointed when they found that it was just the Basso-Profundo at the back of the stage, practising some notes – arpeggios, the schoolmaster called them.
‘And it’s queer,’ young Vermaak went on, ‘that there actually is a scene in the Opera, too, that is called “Mountain Retreat of the Smugglers”. Only, there is a beautiful girl in that Mountain Retreat, and she is concerned only with the pleasure and the passion of the passing moment.’
‘Well, that was something like …’ Chris Welman began to say. Several of us sat up very straight on our riempie-chairs, then, to hear more. This was something quite new to us. It looked as though those Europeans had something, after all.
‘She makes them aware of her charms,’ young Vermaak went on.
Yes, quite, we thought.
It was certainly something that had never come the way of a Bushveld farmer on a cloudy night when he had cut some strand of barbed-wire, to let a herd of cattle into the Transvaal.
We doubted whether anything like that had ever happened, even to Oom Koos Gerber himself, although everybody knew how lucky he was in such matters. In matters relating to cattle-smuggling, that was.
‘This Opera is full of colour and movement,’ the schoolmaster went on.
And we thought, yes, we could believe that. We could also understand young Vermaak having booked seats, then, even though it was all just music and singing.
‘Then a gentle peasant girl arrives with a message for the officer, who is now a smuggler,’ the schoolmaster proceeded.
Well, we didn’t really care what he was – whether he was an officer or anything else – before he became a smuggler. Nor were we much interested to hear about that peasant girl, either. It was the other one that the schoolmaster couldn’t tell us enough about.
‘It’s a very moving song that the smuggler, who was once an officer, sings,’ young Vermaak continued. ‘I’m looking forward to hearing it. He sings it by a hole in the wall. It’s through reading the message that the simple-minded girl brings him.’
The schoolmaster spoke a good deal more about Opera, after that. But somehow, it never sounded quite the same again as when he had first started.
Even what he said about the lovely Rhine-maiden with the lily in her hair didn’t come up to the level of that other one.
All the same, as the schoolmaster went on speaking, our attitude towards him began to change, in a singular way, with the result that we started feeling more human about him, and it seemed that there was something in what he called European culture, after all.
The result was that he afterwards set our feelings at rest, with some quite simple words.
‘I’m going to the Opera in Johannesburg with my own money,’ the schoolmaster said, ‘that I have saved up. I know I sort of tried to lie to you at the start.
‘But I don’t want you to think I’ve changed just because I’ve now got a rich father-in-law. I wouldn’t take his money, even if …’
‘Even if he offered you some,’ Gysbert van Tonder said, trying to sound sardonic.
Young Vermaak smiled.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘even if he offered me some – which he hasn’t. And this cigarette case of mine is only rolled gold. What’s more, it was engraved by a Zeerust watchmaker. What Jo’burg engraver can make scrolls and flourishes like that today, I mean? Here … take a look.’