No – Oom Schalk Lourens said – I don’t know why it is that people always ask me to tell them stories. Even though they all know that I can tell better stories than anybody else. Much better. What I mean is, I wonder why people listen to stories. Of course, it is easy to understand why a man should ask me to tell him a story when there’s a drought in the Marico. Because then he can sit on the stoep and smoke his pipe and drink coffee, while I’m talking, so that my story keeps him from having to go to the borehole, in the hot sun, to pump water for his cattle.
By the earnest manner in which the farmers of the Marico ask me for stories at certain periods, I’m always able to tell that there’s no breeze to drive the windmill, and that the pump-handle’s heavy, and that the water’s very far down. And at such times I’ve often observed the look of sorrow that comes into a man’s eyes, when he knows that I am near the end of my story and that he will shortly have to reach for his hat.
And when I have finished the story, he says: ‘Yes, Oom Schalk. That’s the way of the world. Yes, that story’s very deep.’
But I know that all the time he’s really thinking of how deep the water is in the borehole.
As I’ve said, it’s when people have other reasons for asking me to tell them a story that I start wondering as I do now. When they ask me at those times when there’s no ploughing to be done and there are no barbed-wire fences to be put up in the heat of the day. And I think that these reasons are deeper than any stories and deeper than the water in the boreholes when there is a drought.
There was young Krisjan Geel, for instance. He once listened to a story. It was foolish of him to have listened, of course, especially as I hadn’t told it to him. He’d heard it from the Indian behind the counter of the shop in Ramoutsa. Krisjan Geel related this story to me, and I told him straight out that I didn’t think much of it. I said anybody could guess, right from the start, why the princess was sitting beside the well. Anybody could see that she hadn’t come there just because she was thirsty. I also said that the story was too long, and that even if I was thinking of something else, I would still have told it in such a way that people would have wanted to hear it to the end. I pointed out lots of other details like that.
Krisjan Geel said he had no doubt that I was right, but that the man who had told him the story was an Indian, after all, and that for an Indian, perhaps, it wasn’t too bad. He also said that there were quite a number of customers in the place, and that that made it more difficult for the Indian to tell the storyproperly, because he had to stand at such an awkward angle, all the time, weighing out things with his foot on the scale.
By his tone, it sounded as though Krisjan Geel was quite sorry for the Indian.
So I spoke to him very firmly.
‘The Indian in the store at Ramoutsa,’ I said, ‘has told me much better stories than that before today. He once told me that there were no burnt mealies mixed with the coffee beans he sold me. Another one that was almost as good was when he said …’
‘And to think that the princess went and waited by the well,’ Krisjan Geel interrupted me, ‘just because once she had seen the young man there.’
‘Another good one,’ I insisted, ‘was when he said there was no Kalahari sand in the sack of yellow sugar I bought from him.’
‘And she had only seen him once,’ Krisjan Geel went on, ‘and she was a princess.’
‘And I had to give most of that sugar to the pigs,’ I said. ‘It didn’t melt or sweeten the coffee. It just stayed like mud at the bottom of the cup.’
‘She waited by the well because she was in love with him,’ Krisjan Geel ended up, lamely.
‘I just mixed it in with the pigs’ mealie-meal,’ I said. ‘They ate it very fast. It’s funny how fast a pig eats.’
Krisjan Geel didn’t say any more after that one. No doubt he realised that I wasn’t going to allow him to impress me with a story told by an Indian, and not very well told either. I could see what the Indian’s idea was. Just because I had stopped buying from his shop after that unpleasantness about the coffee beans and the sugar – which were only burnt mealies and Kalahari sand, as I explained to a number of my neighbours – he had hit on this uncalled-for way of paying me back. He was setting up as my rival. He was also going to tell stories.
And on account of the long start I had on him, he was using all sorts of unfair methods. Like putting princesses in his stories. And palaces. And elephants that were all dressed up with yellow and red hangings and that were trained to trample on the king’s enemies at the word of command. Whereas the only kind of elephants I could talk about were those that didn’t wear red hangings or gold bangles, and that didn’t worry about whether or not you were the king’s enemy: they just trampled on you first, anyhow; and without any sort of training, either.
At first I felt it was very unfair of the Indian to come along with stories like that. I couldn’t compete. But when I thought it over carefully, I knew that it didn’t matter. The Indian could tell all the stories he liked about a princess riding around on an elephant. For there was one thing I knew I could always do better than the Indian. In just a few words, and without even talking about the princess, I would be able to let people know, subtly, what was in her heart. And this was more important than the palaces and the temples and the elephants with gold ornaments on their feet.
Perhaps the Indian realised the truth of what I’m saying now. At all events, after a while he stopped wasting the time of his customers with stories of emperors. In between telling them that the price of sheep-dip and axle-grease had gone up. Or perhaps his customers grew tired of listening to him.
The days passed, and the drought came, and the farmers of the Marico put in much of their time at the boreholes, pushing the heavy pump-handles up and down. The Indian’s brief period of storytelling was almost forgotten. Even Krisjan Geel came to admit that there was such a thing as overdoing these storiesof magnificence.
‘All these things he says about temples, and so on,’ Krisjan Geel said, ‘with white floors and shining red stones in them. And rajahs. Do you know what a rajah is, Oom Schalk? No, I don’t know, either. You can have too much of that. It was only that one story of his that was any good. The one about the princess. She had rich stones in her hair, and pearls sewn on to her dress. And so the young man never guessed why she'd come there. He didn’t guess that she loved him. But perhaps I didn’t tell you the story properly the first time, Oom Schalk. Perhaps I should tell it to you again. I’ve already told it to many people.’
But I declined this offer hurriedly. I replied that there was no need for him to go over all that again. I said that I remembered the story very well, and that if it was all the same to him, I should prefer not to hear it a second time. He might just spoil it in telling it all over again.
‘Why you’re so interested in that story,’ I said, ‘is because you like to imagine yourself as that young man.’
Krisjan Geel agreed with me that this was the reason why the Indian’s story had appealed to him so much. And he went on to say that a young man had no chance, really, in the Marico. What with the droughts, and the cattle getting miltsiek, and the mosquitoes buzzing around so that you couldn’t sleep at night.
And when Krisjan Geel left me, I could see – very clearly – how much he envied the young man in the Indian’s story.
As I have said before, there are some strange things about stories, and about the people who listen to them. I thought so particularly on a hot afternoon, a few weeks later, when I saw Lettie Viljoen. The sun shone on her upturned face, and on her bright yellow hair. She sat with one hand pressed in the dry grass of last summer, and I thought of what a graceful figure she was, and how slender her wrists were.
And because Lettie Viljoen hadn’t come there riding on an elephant with orange trappings and gold bangles, and because she wasn’t wearing a string of red stones at her throat, Krisjan Geel knew, of course, that she wasn’t a princess.
And I suppose this was the reason why, during all the time he was talking to her, telling her the story about the princess at the well, Krisjan Geel never guessed about Lettie Viljoen, and what it was that had brought her there, in the heat of the sun, to the borehole.