We climbed on to the cart and set off to look for the way home.
“I know that school-teacher in the Zeerust bar was all wrong,” Jan Ockerse said, finally, “when he tried to explain how far away the stars are. The lower one of those three stars â ah, it has just faded â is very near to me. Yes, it is very near.”
Willem Prinsloo's Peach Brandy
No (Oom Schalk Lourens said) you don't get flowers in the Groot Marico. It is not a bad district for mealies, and I once grew quite good onions in a small garden I made next to the dam. But what you can really call flowers are rare things here. Perhaps it's the heat. Or the drought.
Yet whenever I talk about flowers, I think of Willem Prinsloo's farm on Abjaterskop, where the dance was, and I think of Fritz Pretorius, sitting pale and sick by the roadside, and I think of the white rose that I wore in my hat, jauntily. But most of all I think of Grieta.
If you walk over my farm to the hoogte, and look towards the north-west, you can see Abjaterskop behind the ridge of the Dwarsberge. People will tell you that there are ghosts on Abjaterskop, and that it was once the home of witches. I can believe that. I was at Abjaterskop only once. That was many years ago. And I
never went there again. Still, it wasn't the ghosts that kept me away; nor was it the witches.
Grieta Prinsloo was due to come back from the finishing school at Zeerust, where she had gone to learn English manners and dictation and other high-class subjects. Therefore Willem Prinsloo, her father, arranged a big dance on his farm at Abjaterskop to celebrate Grieta's return.
I was invited to the party. So was Fritz Pretorius. So was every white person in the district, from Derdepoort to Ramoutsa. What was more, practically everybody went. Of course, we were all somewhat nervous about meeting Grieta. With all the superior things she had learnt at the finishing school, we wouldn't be able to talk to her in a chatty sort of way, just as though she were an ordinary Boer girl. But what fetched us all to Abjaterskop in the end was our knowledge that Willem Prinsloo made the best peach brandy in the district.
Fritz Pretorius spoke to me of the difficulty brought about by Grieta's learning.
“Yes, jong,” he said, “I am feeling pretty shaky about talking to her, I can tell you. I have been rubbing up my education a bit, though. Yesterday I took out my old slate that I last used when I left school seventeen years ago, and I did a few sums. I did some addition and subtraction. I tried a little multiplication, too. But I have forgotten how it is done.”
I told Fritz that I would have liked to have helped him, but I had never learnt as far as multiplication.
The day of the dance arrived. The post-cart bearing Grieta to her father's house passed through Drogedal in the morning. In the afternoon I got dressed. I wore a black jacket, fawn trousers, and a pink shirt. I also put on the brown boots that I had bought about a year before, and that I had never had occasion to wear. For I would have looked silly walking about the farm in a pair of shop boots when everybody else wore homemade veldskoens.
I believed, as I got on my horse, and set off down the Government Road, with my hat rakishly on one side, that I would be easily the best-dressed young man at that dance.
It was getting on towards sunset when I arrived at the foot of Abjaterskop, which I had to skirt in order to reach Willem Prinsloo's farm, nestling in a hollow behind the hills. I felt, as I rode, that it was stupid for a man to live in a part that was reputed to be haunted. The trees grew taller and denser, as they always do on rising ground. And they also got a lot darker.
All over the place were queer, heavy shadows. I didn't like the look of them. I remembered stories I had heard of the witches of Abjaterskop, and what they did to travellers who lost their way in the dark. It seemed an easy thing to lose your way among those tall trees. Accordingly, I spurred my horse on to a gallop, to get out of this gloomy region as quickly as possible. After all, a horse is sensitive about things like ghosts and witches, and it was my duty to see my horse was not frightened unnecessarily. Especially as a cold wind suddenly sprang up through the poort, and once or twice it sounded as though an evil voice were calling my name. I
started riding fast then. But a few moments later I looked round and realised the position. It was Fritz Pretorius galloping along behind me.
“What was your hurry?” Fritz asked when I had slowed down to allow his overtaking me.
“I wished to get through those trees before it was too dark,” I answered, “I didn't want my horse to get frightened.”
“I suppose that's why you were riding with your arms round his neck,” Fritz observed, “to soothe him.”
I did not reply. But what I did notice was that Fritz was also very stylishly dressed. True, I beat him as far as shirt and boots went, but he was dressed in a new grey suit, with his socks pulled up over the bottoms of his trousers. He also had a handkerchief which he ostentatiously took out of his pocket several times.
Of course, I couldn't be jealous of a person like Fritz Pretorius. I was only annoyed at the thought that he was making himself ridiculous by going to a party with an outlandish thing like a handkerchief.
We arrived at Willem Prinsloo's house. There were so many ox-wagons drawn up on the veld that the place looked like a laager. Prinsloo met us at the door.
“Go right through, kÃªrels,” he said, “the dancing is in the voorhuis. The peach brandy is in the kitchen.”
Although the voorhuis was big it was so crowded as to make it almost impossible to dance. But it was not as crowded as the kitchen. Nor was the music in the voorhuis â which was provided
by a number of men with guitars and concertinas â as loud as the music in the kitchen, where there was no band, but each man sang for himself.
We knew from these signs that the party was a success.
When I had been in the kitchen for about half an hour I decided to go into the voorhuis. It seemed a long way, now, from the kitchen to the voorhuis, and I had to lean against the wall several times to think. I passed a number of other men who were also leaning against the wall like that, thinking. One man even found that he could think best by sitting on the floor with his head in his arms.
You could see that Willem Prinsloo made good peach brandy.
Then I saw Fritz Pretorius, and the sight of him brought me to my senses right away. Airily flapping his white handkerchief in time with the music, he was talking to a girl who smiled up at him with bright eyes and red lips and small white teeth.
I knew at once that it was Grieta.
She was tall and slender and very pretty, and her dark hair was braided with a wreath of white roses that you could see had been picked that same morning in Zeerust. And she didn't look the sort of girl, either, in whose presence you had to appear clever and educated. In fact, I felt I wouldn't really need the twelve times table which I had torn off the back of a school writing book and had thrust into my jacket pocket before leaving home.
You can imagine that it was not too easy for me to get a word in with Grieta while Fritz was hanging around. But I managed it
eventually, and while I was talking to her I had the satisfaction of seeing, out of the corner of my eye, the direction Fritz took. He went into the kitchen, flapping his handkerchief behind him â into the kitchen, where the laughter was, and the singing, and Willem Prinsloo's peach brandy.
I told Grieta that I was Schalk Lourens.
“Oh, yes, I have heard of you,” she answered, “from Fritz Pretorius.”
I knew what that meant. So I told her that Fritz was known all over the Marico for his lies. I told her other things about Fritz. Ten minutes later, when I was still talking about him, Grieta smiled and said that I could tell her the rest some other night.
“But I must tell you one more thing now,” I insisted. “When he knew that he would be meeting you here at the dance, Fritz started doing homework.”
I told her about the slate and the sums, and Grieta laughed softly. It struck me again how pretty she was. And her eyes were radiant in the candlelight. And the roses looked very white against her dark hair. And all this time the dancers whirled around us, and the band in the voorhuis played lively dance tunes, and from the kitchen there issued weird sounds of jubilation.
The rest happened very quickly.
I can't even remember how it all came about. But what I do know is that when we were outside, under the tall trees, with the stars over us, I could easily believe that Grieta was not a girl
at all, but one of the witches of Abjaterskop who wove strange spells.
Yet to listen to my talking nobody would have guessed the wild, thrilling things that were in my heart.
I told Grieta about last year's drought, and about the difficulty of keeping the white ants from eating through the door and window-frames, and about the way my new brown boots tended to take the skin off my toe if I walked quickly.
Then I moved close up to her.
“Grieta,” I said, taking her hand, “Grieta, there is something I want to tell you.”
She pulled away her hand. She did it very gently, though. Sorrowfully, almost.
“I know what you want to say,” she answered.
I was surprised at that.
“How do you know, Grieta?” I asked.
“Oh, I know lots of things,” she replied, laughing again, “I haven't been to finishing school for nothing.”
“I don't mean that,” I answered at once, “I wasn't going to talk about spelling or arithmetic. I was going to tell you that â ”
“Please don't say it, Schalk,” Grieta interrupted me. “I â I don't know whether I am worthy of hearing it. I don't know, even â ”
“But you are so lovely,” I exclaimed. “I have got to tell you how lovely you are.”
But at the very moment I stepped forward she retreated swiftly, eluding me. I couldn't understand how she had timed it
so well. For, try as I might, I couldn't catch her. She sped lightly and gracefully amongst the trees, and I followed as best I could.
Yet it was not only my want of learning that handicapped me. There were also my new boots. And Willem Prinsloo's peach brandy. And the shaft of a mule-cart â the lower end of the shaft, where it rests in the grass.
I didn't fall very hard, though. The grass was long and thick there. But even as I fell a great happiness came into my heart. And I didn't care about anything else in the world.
Grieta had stopped running. She turned round. For an instant her body, slender and misty in the shadows, swayed towards me. Then her hand flew to her hair. Her finger pulled at the wreath. And the next thing I knew was that there lay, within reach of my hand, a small white rose.
I shall always remember the thrill with which I picked up that rose, and how I trembled when I stuck it in my hat. I shall always remember the stir I caused when I walked into the kitchen. Everybody stopped drinking to look at the rose in my hat. The young men made jokes about it. The older men winked slyly and patted me on the back.
Although Fritz Pretorius was not in the kitchen to witness my triumph, I knew he would get to hear of it somehow. That would make him realise that it was impudence for a fellow like him to set up as Schalk Lourens's rival.
During the rest of the night I was a hero.
The men in the kitchen made me sit on the table. They plied
me with brandy and drank to my health. And afterwards, when a dozen of them carried me outside, on to an ox-wagon, for fresh air, they fell with me only once.
At daybreak I was still on that wagon.
I woke up feeling very sick â until I remembered about Grieta's rose. There was that white rose still stuck in my hat, for the whole world to know that Grieta Prinsloo had chosen me before all other men.
But what I didn't want people to know was that I had remained asleep on that ox-wagon hours after the other guests had gone. So I rode away very quietly, glad that nobody was astir to see me go.
My head was dizzy as I rode, but in my heart it felt like green wings beating; and although it was day now, there was the same soft wind in the grass that had been there when Grieta flung the rose at me, standing under the stars.
I rode slowly through the trees on the slope of Abjaterskop, and had reached the place where the path turns south again, when I saw something that made me wonder if, at these fashionable finishing schools, they did not perhaps teach the girls too much.
First I saw Fritz Pretorius's horse by the roadside.
Then I saw Fritz. He was sitting up against a thorn-tree, with his chin resting on his knees. He looked very pale and sick. But what made me wonder much about those finishing schools was that in Fritz's hat, which had fallen on the ground some distance away from him, there was a small white rose.