Of course, I know about history – Oom Schalk Lourens said – it’s the stuff children learn in school. Only the other day, at Thys Lemmer’s post office, Thys’s little son, Stoffel, started reading out of his history book, about a man called Vasco da Gama, who visited the Cape. At once, Dirk Snyman started telling young Stoffel about the time when he himself visited the Cape, but young Stoffel didn’t take much notice of him. So Dirk Snyman said that that showed you.
Yes, it’s a queer thing about wanting to get into history.
Take the case of Manie Kruger, for instance.
Manie Kruger was one of the best farmers in the Marico. He knew just how much peach brandy to pour out for the tax-collector, to make sure that he would nod dreamily at everything Manie said. And at a time of drought, Manie Kruger could run to the Government for help much quicker than any man I ever knew.
Then, one day, Manie Kruger read an article in the Kerkbode about a musician who said that he knew more about music than Napoleon did. After that – having first read another article, to find out who Napoleon was – Manie Kruger was a changed man. He could talk of nothing but his place in history, and of his musical career.
Of course, everybody knew that no man in the Marico could be counted in the same class with Manie Kruger, when it came to playing the concertina.
No Bushveld dance was complete without Manie Kruger’s concertina. When he played a vastrap, you couldn’t keep your feet still. But after he had decided to become the sort of musician that gets into history books, it was strange the way that Manie Kruger altered. For one thing, he said he would never again play at a dance. We all felt sad about that. There would be the peach brandy in the kitchen; in the voorkamer the feet of the dancers would go through the steps of schottische and the polka and the waltz and the mazurka, but on the riempies bench in the corner, where the musicians sat, there would be no Manie Kruger. And they would play ‘Die Vaal Hare en die Blou Oge’ and ‘Vat Jou Goed en Trek, Ferreira’, but it would be another’s fingers that swept over the concertina keys. And when, with the dancing and the peach brandy, the young men called out ‘Dagbreek toe,’ it would not be Manie Kruger’s head that bowed down to the applause.
It was sad to think about all this.
For so long, at the Bushveld dances, Manie Kruger had been the chief musician.
And of all those who mourned this change that had come over Manie, we could see that there was no one more grieved than Letta Steyn.
And Manie said such queer things at times. Once he said that what he had to do to get into history was to die of consumption in the arms of a princess, like another musician he had read about. Only it was hard to get consumption in the Marico, because the climate was so healthy.
Although Manie stopped playing his concertina at dances, he played a great deal in another way. He started giving what he called recitals. I went to several of them. They were very impressive.
At the first recital I went to, I found that the front part of Manie’s voorkamer was taken up by rows of benches and chairs that he had borrowed from those of his neighbours who didn’t mind having to eat their meals on candle-boxes and upturned buckets. At the far end of the voorkamer, a wide green curtain was hung on a piece of string. When I came in, the place was full. I managed to squeeze in, on a bench between Jan Terblanche and a young woman in a blue kappie. Jan Terblanche had been trying to hold this young woman’s hand.
Manie Kruger was sitting behind the green curtain. He was already there when I came in. I knew it was Manie by his veldskoens, which were sticking out from underneath the curtain. Letta Steyn sat in front of me. Now and again, when she turned round, I saw that there was a flush on her face, and a look of dark excitement in her eyes.
At last everything was ready, and Joel – the farm labourer to whom Manie had given this job – slowly drew the green curtain aside. A few of the younger men called out ‘Middag, ou Manie,’ and Jan Terblanche asked if it wasn’t very close and suffocating, sitting there like that behind that piece of green curtain.
Then he started to play.
And we all knew that it was the most wonderful concertina music we had ever listened to. It was Manie Kruger at his best. He had practised a long time for that recital; his fingers flew over the keys; the notes of the concertina swept into our hearts; and the music of Manie Kruger lifted us right out of that voorkamer and into a strange, rich and dazzling world.
It was fine.
The applause right through was terrific. At the end of each piece, Joel closed the curtains in front of Manie, and we sat waiting for a few minutes until the curtains were drawn aside again. But after that first time, there was no more laughter about this procedure. The recital lasted for about an hour and a half, and the applause at the end was even greater than at the start. And during those ninety minutes, Manie left his seat only once. That was when there was some trouble with the curtain, and he got up to kick Joel.
At the end of the recital, Manie did not come forward and shake hands with us, as we had expected. Instead, he slipped through, behind the green curtain, into the kitchen, and sent word that we could come and see him round the back. At first we thought this a bit queer, but Letta Steyn said it was all right. She explained that in other countries, the great musicians and stage performers all received their admirers at the back. Jan Terblanche said that if these actors used their kitchens for entertaining their visitors in, he wondered where they did their cooking.
Nevertheless, most of us went round to the kitchen, and we had a good time congratulating Manie Kruger and shaking hands with him; and Manie spoke much of his musical future, and of the triumphs that would come to him in the great cities of the world, when he would stand before the curtain and bow to the applause.
Manie gave a number of other recitals, after that. They were all equally fine. Only, as he had to practise all day, he couldn’t pay much attention to his farming. The result was that his farm went to pieces, and he got into debt. The court messengers came and attached half his cattle, while he was busy practising for his fourth recital. And he was practising for his seventh recital, when they took away his ox-waggon and mule cart.
Eventually, when Manie Kruger’s musical career reached that stage when they took away his plough and the last of his oxen, he sold up what remained of his possessions and left the Bushveld, on his way to those great cities that he had so often talked about. It was very grand, the send-off that the Marico gave him. The predikant and the Volksraad member both made speeches about how proud the Transvaal was of her great son. Then Manie replied. Instead of thanking his audience, however, he started abusing us left and right, calling us a mob of hooligans, and soulless Philistines, and saying how much he despised us.
Naturally, we were very much surprised at this outburst, as we had always been kind to Manie Kruger, and had encouraged him all we could. But Letta Steyn explained that Manie didn’t really mean the things he said. She said it was just that every great artist was expected to talk in that way about the place he came from.
So we knew it was all right, and the more offensive the things were that Manie said about us, the louder we shouted ‘Hoor, hoor vir Manie.’ There was a particularly enthusiastic round of applause when he said that we knew as much about art as a boomslang. His language was hotter than anything I had ever heard – except once. And that was when De Wet said what he thought of Cronje’s surrender to the English at Paardeberg. We could feel that Manie’s speech was the real thing. We cheered ourselves hoarse that day.
And so Manie Kruger went. We received one letter to say that he had reached Pretoria. But after that, we heard no more of him.
Yet always, when Letta Steyn spoke of Manie, it was as a child speaks of a dream, half-wistfully; and, always, with the voice of a wistful child, she would tell me how one day, one day he would return. And often, when it was dusk, I would see her sitting on the stoep, gazing out across the veld into the evening, down the dusty road that led between the thorn-trees and beyond the Dwarsberge, waiting for the lover who would come to her no more.
It was a long time before I again saw Manie Kruger. And then it was in Pretoria. I had gone there to interview the Volksraad member about an election promise. It was quite by accident that I saw Manie. And he was playing the concertina – playing as well as ever, I thought. I went away quickly.
But what affected me very strangely was just that one glimpse I had of the green curtain of the bar in front of which Manie Kruger played.