From ‘Easy Circumstances’
In A Bekkersdal Marathon
by Herman Charles Bosman
‘Poverty is no crime,’ Chris Welman declared. He declared it loudly, a shade aggressively, at the same time pushing the toe of his broken veldskoen under his chair. ‘Nor is it a matter for shame, either,’ he added, ‘to be poor.’
‘No, I don’t care who knows that I’m not particularly rich, myself,’ At Naudé remarked, withdrawing from general view a trouser turn-up that had been mended with string. ‘Of course, it’s not like I’ve been brought up poor. When my father trekked into these parts, coming up from the Cape, he was well-to-do. I won’t say diamonds, and a sitting-up chair with blue curtains that you got carried around in, and such like, as they used to have in the old days in the Cape. No doubt my grandfather, in his time, would have been carried around in a sitting-up chair.
‘But my father, when he came up from the Cape – why, we were just people in quite easy circumstances, that’s all. Perhaps in the Transvaal – with the class of farmer living in the Transvaal then, I mean – we would have been thought to be rich, even.’
So Chris Welman said, yes, in the same way when his grandfather came up from the Cape, his grandfather was reckoned to be a man of no little affluence – especially so, perhaps, in comparison with what was the financial standing of the general run of Transvaler then resident in the Transvaal. In fact, he wouldn’t have been surprised if his grandfather had actually been carried up from the Cape into the Transvaal Bushveld, sitting in one of those sitting-up chairs with blue curtains.
‘Yes, I can quite believe it,’ Gysbert van Tonder interjected, in a sarcastic voice. ‘And it’s easy to see that that’s what your Nagmaal suit is patched with, too – a piece of that same blue curtain … Well, I’m not exactly penniless today, and I don’t care who knows it. Also, I was brought up poor, and I’m not ashamed of that either.’
So Jurie Steyn said, well, there were different ways of making money. And he wasn’t sure that it would meet with everybody’s approval, the way some people made their money. At the same time, he couldn’t but think that it was a strange thing how some people would talk about how well-to-do their forebears were, compared with the Transvalers there that lived in reed-and-mud-daub houses.
After all, where did the Transvalers that lived in reed-and-mud-daub houses come from, if they didn’t come from the Cape? He was sure he didn’t know, Jurie Steyn said.
But what he would not seek to deny about his own family, when they came up from the Cape, Jurie Steyn said, was that they enjoyed a greater than ordinary measure of prosperity. Compared with most of the Transvalers, that was.
‘Not that I won’t admit that I, myself, am a bit on the poor side, today,’ Jurie Steyn added, before Gysbert van Tonder could make another interjection.’ And it’s not that I’m ashamed of being poor, either. There’s nothing about it that I’ve got to try and hide.’
That was true enough. Shielded as his apparel was by the post office counter, there were no flaws in his garments that Jurie Steyn needed to retire from the gaze of vulgar curiosity.
Before the discussion grew really acrimonious, however, Oupa Bekker began to relate an old Transvaal story that introduced a good many of the features we had already touched on. It was a story of a poor girl, Miemie de Jager, who lived with her parents in the Groot Marico in the kind of hartbees house we had already been talking about.
‘It was the kind of dwelling …’ Oupa Bekker started.
‘You don’t need to say that part of it again. We already know all that,’ Jurie Steyn interjected. For Jurie Steyn had noticed that At Naudé was again surveying his voorkamer, in a thoughtful manner.
‘Very well, in that case, I’ll say only that Miemie de Jager’s parents did not exactly live in a palace …’ Oupa Bekker proceeded.
‘Yes,’ At Naudé nodded. ‘I can imagine just the kind of hovel she stayed in. I must say, I think I’ve got a pretty good idea, now. And I think the less said about it, the better.’
Thereupon Jurie Steyn burst out that At Naudé should be the last person to talk. If Miemie de Jager had ever seen At Naudé’s kitchen, and the kind of plates he ate out of, Jurie Steyn said, then Miemie de Jager would feel, next to it, that her parents were rich people from the Cape who had just arrived in sitting-up chairs.
Jurie Steyn talked as though he already knew what Miemie de Jager was like.
Only after Gysbert van Tonder had spoken at some length, and in a sneering way – saying that for people who weren’t ashamed of being poor, it was surprising how fussy some of us were – was Oupa Bekker able to get on with his story.
‘Miemie de Jager,’ Oupa Bekker said, ‘lived with her parents in a … in a plain house that was near the first sawmill they had in this part of the Transvaal. And one morning, when she was on her way home from the sawmill …’
‘Good Lord!’ Chris Welman ejaculated suddenly. ‘You don’t mean to say they were that poor. You don’t mean she worked in the sawmill – those heavy thirty-foot logs – that’s no work for a young girl with fair hair and dimples – sawing …’
It was apparent that Chris Welman had already formed a picture in his own mind of how Miemie de Jager looked.
But Oupa Bekker said no, it was Miemie de Jager’s father who worked in the sawmill. Miemie went there every morning to fetch firewood in a sack.
‘And then, one morning, on her way home through the bluegums,’ Oupa Bekker continued, ‘she saw a young man approaching along the path – a young man she didn’t know. She guessed right away that he must be a son of the new people who had bought up the sawmill and the whole property. Rich people from the Cape, they were.
‘So she let the sack of firewood fall from her shoulders, quickly, and she hid the sack behind a bluegum. She did not mind the young man seeing her walking barefoot, but she did not want him to see her carrying that sack of wood. It went against her womanly pride. Not that she was ashamed of her parents being poor …’.
No, no, we said. Poverty wasn’t a crime, we said. But we had noticed Chris Welman hiding his broken veldskoen. And we had seen what At Naudé had done, furtively almost, with his trouser turn-up, a little earlier on. So we knew just how Miemie de Jager felt about that sack, a symbol of the fact that her parents were none too well off.
‘She decided to walk straight on, and pass that young man; and then, after he was out of sight, she woud go back and fetch the sack,’ Oupa Bekker said. ‘But after she had passed the young man – keeping her eyes down on the ground as she passed him – and she turned round to see if he was out of sight yet, she saw that he had turned round, to look back at her. And when he saw her turning round, he thought – oh well, they were both young. And so they walked slowly towards each other, Miemie de Jager walking much more slowly than the young man, and blushing a good deal.
‘And the young man said he was going to look at the sawmill his father had just bought. And Miemie said that she had come out for a walk through the bluegums, and to pick yellow veld flowers. And they stood talking a long while in the pathway. And afterwards, the girl said she had to go home. And then the young man said, oh, but what about her firewood. And he asked whether he could carry it home for her. And she said, yes. And when she saw him lift the sack of firewood onto his broad, young shoulders, she knew she would never need to carry a sack of firewood home again.’
Jurie Steyn wanted to know how Oupa Bekker knew all that. About what went on in Miemie de Jager’s thoughts, Jurie Steyn said.
‘She told me after we were married,’ Oupa Bekker answered. ‘You see, I was that young man. It was my father who had just bought the sawmill. You must understand that, when we came up from the Cape, my parents were in easy circumstances.’