From ‘Veld Maiden’
In Mafeking Road
by Herman Charles Bosman
I know what it is – Oom Schalk Lourens said – when you talk that way about the veld. I have known people who sit like you do and dream about the veld, and talk strange things, and start believing in what they call the soul of the veld, until in the end the veld means a different thing to them from what it does to me.
I only know that the veld can be used for growing mealies on, and it isn’t very good for that, either. Also, it means very hard work for me, growing mealies. There is the ploughing, for instance. I used to get aches in my back and shoulders from sitting on a stone all day long on the edge of the lands, watching the labourers and the oxen and the plough going up and down, making furrows. Hans Coetzee, who was a Boer War prisoner on St Helena, told me how he got sick at sea from watching the ship going up and down, up and down, all the time.
And it’s the same with ploughing. The only real cure for this ploughing sickness is to sit quietly on a riempies bench on the stoep, with one’s legs raised slightly, drinking coffee until the ploughing season is over. Most of the farmers in the Marico Bushveld have adopted this remedy, as you have no doubt observed by this time.
But there the veld is. And it is not good to think too much about it. For then it can lead you in strange ways. And sometimes – sometimes when the veld has led you very far – there comes into your eyes a look that God did not put there.
It was in the early summer, shortly after the rains, that I first came across John de Swardt. He was sitting next to a tent that he had pitched behind the maroelas at the far end of my farm, where it adjoins Frans Welman’s lands. He had been there several days and I had not known about it, because I sat on my stoep then, on account of what I have already explained to you about the ploughing.
He was a young fellow with long black hair. When I got nearer I saw what he was doing. He had a piece of white bucksail on a stand in front of him and he was painting my farm. He seemed to have picked out all the useless bits for his picture – a krantz and a few stones and some clumps of khaki-bos.
Then John de Swardt showed me another picture he had painted and when I saw that, I got a different opinion about this thing that he said was art. I looked from De Swardt to the picture and then back again to De Swardt.
‘I’d never have thought it of you,’ I said, ‘and you look such a quiet sort, too.’
‘I call it the “Veld Maiden”,’ John de Swardt said.
‘If the predikant saw it he’d call it by other names,’ I replied. ‘But I’m a broadminded man. I’ve been once in the bar in Zeerust and twice in the bioscope when I should have been attending Nagmaal. So I don’t hold it against a young man for having ideas like this. But you mustn’t let anybody here see this Veld Maiden unless you paint a few more clothes on her.’
‘I couldn’t,’ De Swardt answered, ‘that’s just how I see her. That’s just how I dream about her. For many years now, she has come to me so in my dreams.’
‘With her arms stretched out like that?’ I asked.
‘And with …’.
‘Yes, yes, just like that,’ De Swardt said very quickly. Then he blushed and I could see how very young he was. It seemed a pity that a nice young fellow like that should be so mad.
‘Anyway, if ever you want a painting job,’ I said when I left, ‘you can come and whitewash the back of my sheep-kraal.’
I often say funny things like that to people.
On several Sundays in succession I took De Swardt over the rant to the house of Frans Welman. I didn’t have a very high regard for Frans’s judgment since the time he voted for the wrong man at the School Committee. But I had no other neighbour within walking distance, and I had to go somewhere on a Sunday.
We talked of all sorts of things. Frans’s wife Sannie was young and pretty, but very shy. She wasn’t naturally like that. It was only that she was afraid to talk in case she said something of which her husband might disapprove. So most of the time Sannie sat silent in the corner, getting up now and again to make more coffee for us.
Frans Welman was in some respects what people might call a hard man. For instance, it was something of a mild scandal the way he treated his wife and the labourers on his farm. But then, on the other hand, he looked very well after his cattle and his pigs. And I have always believed that this is more important in a farmer than that he should be kind to his wife and the labourers.
Well, we talked about the mealies and the drought of the year before last, and the subsidies, and I could see that in a short while the conversation would come round to the Volksraad, and as I wasn’t anxious to hear how Frans was going to vote in the General Election – believing that so irresponsible a person should not be allowed to vote at all – I quickly asked John de Swardt to tell us about his paintings.
Immediately he started off about his Veld Maiden.
‘Not that one,’ I said kicking his shin, ‘I meant your other paintings. The kind that frighten the locusts.’
I felt that this Veld Maiden thing was not a fit subject to talk about, especially with a woman present. Moreover, it was Sunday.
Nevertheless, that kick came too late. De Swardt rubbed his shin a few times and started on his subject, and although Frans and I cleared our throats awkwardly at different parts, and Sannie looked on the floor with her pretty cheeks very red, the young painter explained everything about that picture and what it meant to him.
‘It’s a dream I’ve had for a long time, now,’ he said at the end, ‘and always she comes to me, and when I put out my arms to clasp her to me, she vanishes; and I’m left with only her memory in my heart. But when she comes, the whole world is clothed in a terrible beauty.’
‘That’s more than she is clothed in, anyway,’ Frans said, ‘judging from what you’ve told us about her.’
‘She’s a spirit. She’s the spirit of the veld,’ De Swardt murmured. ‘She whispers strange and enchanting things. Her coming is like the whisper of the wind. She’s not of the earth at all.’
‘Oh, well,’ Frans said shortly, ‘you can keep these Uitlander ghost-women of yours. A Boer girl is good enough for ordinary fellows like me and Schalk Lourens.’
So the days passed.
John de Swardt finished a few more bits of rock and drought-stricken khaki-bos, and I had got so far as to persuade him to label the worst-looking one ‘Frans Welman’s Farm’.
Then one morning he came to me in great excitement.
‘I saw her again, Oom Schalk,’ he said, ‘I saw her last night. In a surpassing loveliness. Just at midnight. She came softly across the veld towards my tent. The night was warm and lovely, and the stars were mad and singing. And there was low music where her white feet touched the grass. And sometimes her mouth seemed to be laughing, and sometimes it was sad. And her lips were very red, Oom Schalk. And when I reached out with my arms, she went away. She disappeared in the maroelas, like the whispering of the wind. And there was a ringing in my ears. And in my heart there was a green fragrance, and I thought of the pale asphodel that grows in the fields of paradise.’
‘I don’t know about paradise,’ I said, ‘but if a thing like that grew in my mealie-lands, I would pull it up at once. I don’t like this spook nonsense.’
Then I gave him some good advice. I told him to beware of the moon, which was almost full at the time. Because the moon can do strange things to you in the Bushveld, especially if you live in a tent and the full moon is overhead, and there are weird shadows among the maroelas.
But I knew he wouldn’t take any notice of what I told him. Several times after that, he came with the same story about the Veld Maiden. I started getting tired of it.
Then one morning when he came again, I knew everything by the look he had in his eyes. I’ve already told you about that look.
‘Oom Schalk,’ he began.
‘John de Swardt,’ I said to him, ‘don’t tell me anything. All I ask of you is to pack up your things, and leave my farm at once.’
‘I’ll leave tonight,’ he said, ‘I promise you that by tomorrow morning, I’ll be gone. Only let me stay here one more day and night.’
His voice trembled when he spoke, and his knees were very unsteady. But it was not for these reasons, or for his sake, that I relented. I spoke to him very civilly, for the sake of the look he had in his eyes.
‘Very well, then,’ I said, ‘but you must go straight back to Johannesburg. If you walk down the road through the poort before sun-up, you’ll be able to catch the Government lorry to Zeerust.’
He thanked me and left. I never saw him again.
Next day his tent was still there behind the maroelas, but John de Swardt was gone, and he had taken with him all his pictures. All, that is, except the Veld Maiden one. I suppose he had no more need for it.
And, in any case, the white ants had already started on it. So that is why I can hang the remains of it openly on the wall in my voorhuis, and the predikant doesn’t raise any objection to it. For the white ants have eaten away practically all of it except the face.
As for Frans Welman, it was quite a long time before he gave up searching the Marico for his young wife, Sannie.