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 Terreblanche
and a young woman in a blue kappie. Jan Terreblanche 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 kaffir 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 Terreblanche 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; the music of Manie Kruger lifted us right out of that voorkamer into a strange and rich and dazzling world.
It was fine.
The applause right through was terrific. At the end of each piece the kaffir 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 the kaffir.
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 Terreblanche 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-wagon 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 â 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 from 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 Dwarsberg, 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 â 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.
When I passed young Gawie Erasmus by the wall of the new dam (Oom Schalk Lourens said) I could see clearly that he had had another disagreement with his employer, Koos Deventer. Because, as Gawie walked away from me, I saw, on the seat of his trousers, the still damp imprint of a muddy boot. The dried mud of another footprint, higher up on his trousers, told of a similar disagreement that Gawie had had with his employer on the previous day. I thought that Gawie must be a high-spirited young man to disagree so frequently with his employer.
Nevertheless, I felt it my duty to speak to Koos Deventer about this matter when I sat with him in his voorkamer, drinking coffee.
“I see that Gawie Erasmus still lays the stones unevenly on the wall of the new dam you are building,” I said to Koos Deventer.
“Indeed,” Koos answered, “have you been looking at the front part of the wall?”
“No,” I said, “I have been looking at Gawie's trousers. The back part of the trousers.”
“The trouble with Gawie Erasmus,” Koos said, “is that he is not really a white man. It doesn't show in his hair or his fingernails, of course. He is not as coloured as all that. But you can tell it easily in other ways. Yes, that is what's wrong with Gawie. His Hottentot forebears.”
At that moment Koos Deventer's eldest daughter, Francina, brought us in more coffee.
“It is not true, father, what you said about Gawie Erasmus,” Francina said. “Gawie is white. He is as white as I am.”
Francina was eighteen. She was tall and slender. She had a neat figure. And she looked very pretty in that voorkamer, with the yellow hair falling on to her cheeks from underneath a blue ribbon. Another thing I noticed about Francina, as she moved daintily towards me with the tray, was the scent that she bought in Zeerust at the last Nagmaal. The perfume lay on her strangely, like the night.
Koos Deventer made no reply to Francina. And only after she had gone back into the kitchen, and the door was closed, did he return to the subject of Gawie Erasmus.
“He is so coloured,” Koos said, “that he even sleeps with a blanket over his head, like a kaffir does.”
It struck me that Koos Deventer's statements were rather peculiar. For, according to Koos, you couldn't tell that Gawie
Erasmus was coloured, just by looking at his hair and fingernails. You had to wait until Gawie lay underneath a blanket, so that you saw nothing of him at all.
But I remembered the way that Francina had walked out of the voorkamer with her head very high and her red lips closed. And it seemed to me, then, that Gawie's disagreements with his employer were not all due to the unevenness of the wall of the new dam. I did not see Gawie Erasmus again until the meeting of the Drogevlei Debating Society.
But in the meantime the story that Gawie was coloured gained much ground. Paulus Welman said that he knew a man once in Vryburg who had known Gawie's grandfather. And this man said that Gawie's grandfather had a big belly and wore a copper ring through his nose. At other times, again, Paulus Welman said that it was Gawie's father whom this man in Vryburg had known, and that Gawie's father did not wear the copper ring in his nose, but in his one ear. It was hard to know which story to believe. So most of the farmers in the Marico believed both.
The meeting of the Drogevlei Debating Society was held in the schoolroom. There was a good attendance. For the debate was to be on the Native Question. And that was always a popular subject in the Marico. You could say much about it without having to think hard.
I was standing under the thorn-trees talking to Paulus Welman
and some others, when Koos Deventer arrived with his wife and Francina and Gawie. They got off the mule-cart, and the two women walked on towards the schoolroom. Koos and Gawie stayed behind, hitching the reins on to a tree. Several of the men with me shook their heads gravely at what they saw. For Gawie, while stooping for a riem, had another hurried disagreement with his employer.
Francina, walking with her mother towards the school, sensed that something was amiss. But when she turned round she was too late to see anything.
Francina and her mother greeted us as they passed. Paulus Welman said that Francina was a pretty girl, but rather stand-offish. He said her understanding was a bit slow, too. He said that when he had told her that joke about the copper ring in the one ear of Gawie's father, Francina looked at him as though he had said there was a copper ring in his own ear. She didn't seem to be quite all there, Paulus Welman said.
But I didn't take much notice of Paulus.
I stood there, under the thorn-tree, where Francina had passed, and I breathed in stray breaths of that scent which Francina had bought in Zeerust. It was a sweet and strange fragrance. But it was sad, also, like youth that has gone.
I waited in the shadows. Gawie Erasmus came by. I scrutinised him carefully, but except that his hair was black and his skin rather dark, there seemed to be no justification for Koos Deventer to say that he was coloured. It looked like some kind of
joke that Koos Deventer and Paulus Welman had got up between them. Gawie seemed to be just an ordinary and rather good-looking youth of about twenty.
By this time it was dark. Oupa van Tonder, an old farmer who was very keen on debates, lit an oil-lamp that he had brought with him and put it on the table.
The schoolmaster took the chair, as usual. He said that, as we all knew, the subject was that the Bantu should be allowed to develop along his own lines. He said he had got the idea for this debate from an article he had read in the
Oupa van Tonder then got up and said that, the way the schoolmaster put it, the subject was too hard to understand. He proposed, for the sake of the older debaters, who had not gone to school much, that they should just be allowed to talk about how the kaffirs in the Marico were getting cheekier every day. The older debaters cheered Oupa van Tonder for putting the schoolmaster in his place.
Oupa van Tonder was still talking when the schoolmaster banged the table with a ruler and said that he was out of order. Oupa van Tonder got really annoyed then. He said he had lived in the Transvaal for eighty-eight years, and this was the first time in his life that he had been insulted. “Anybody would think that I am the steam machine that threshes the mealies at Nietverdiend, that I can get out of order,” Oupa van Tonder said.