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Authors: Herman Charles Bosman

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BOOK: Mafeking Road
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Some of the men started pulling Oupa van Tonder by his
jacket to get him to sit down, but others shouted out that he was quite right, and that they should pull the schoolmaster's jacket instead.
The schoolmaster explained that if some people were talking on the
Kerkbode
subject, and others were talking on Oupa van Tonder's subject, it would mean that there were two different debates going on at the same time. Oupa van Tonder said that that was quite all right. It suited him, he said. And he told a long story about a kaffir who had stolen his trek-chain. He also said that if the schoolmaster kept on banging the table like that, while he was talking, he would go home and take his oil-lamp with him.
 
In the end the schoolmaster said that we could talk about anything we liked. Only, he asked us not to use any of that coarse language that had spoilt the last three debates. “Try to remember that there are ladies present,” he said in a weak sort of way.
The older debaters, who had not been to school much, spoke at great length.
Afterwards the schoolmaster suggested that perhaps some of our younger members would like to debate a little, and he called on Gawie Erasmus to say a few words on behalf of the kaffirs. The schoolmaster spoke playfully.
Koos Deventer guffawed behind his hand. Some of the women tittered. On account of his unpopularity the schoolmaster heard little of what went on in the Marico. The only news he got was
what he could glean from reading the compositions of the children in the higher classes. And we could see that the children had not yet mentioned, in their compositions, that Gawie Erasmus was supposed to be coloured.
You know how it is with a scandalous story. The last one to hear it is always that person that the scandal is about.
That crowd in the schoolroom realised quickly what the situation was. And there was much laughter all the time that Gawie spoke. I can still remember that half-perplexed look on his dark face, as though he had meant to make a funny speech, but had not expected quite that amount of appreciation. And I noticed that Francina's face was very red, and that her eyes were fixed steadily on the floor.
There was so much laughter, finally, that Gawie had to sit down, still looking slightly puzzled.
After that Paulus Welman got up and told funny stories about so-called white people whose grandfathers had big bellies and wore copper rings in their ears. I don't know at what stage of the debate Gawie Erasmus found out at whom these funny remarks were being directed. Or when it was that he slipped out of the schoolroom, to leave Drogevlei and the Groot Marico for ever.
And some months later, when I again went to visit Koos Deventer, he did not once mention Gawie Erasmus to me. He seemed to have grown tired of Marico scandals. But when Francina brought in the coffee, it was as though she thought that Koos had again spoken about Gawie. For she looked at him in a
disapproving sort of way and said: “Gawie is white, father. He is as white as I am.”
I could not at first make out what the change was that had come over Francina. She was as good-looking as ever, but in a different sort of way. I began to think that perhaps it was because she no longer wore that strange perfume that she bought in Zeerust.
But at that moment she brought me my coffee.
And I saw then, when she came towards me from behind the table, with the tray, why it was that Francina Deventer moved so heavily.
Mafeking Road
When people ask me – as they often do – how it is that I can tell the best stories of anybody in the Transvaal (Oom Schalk Lourens said, modestly), then I explain to them that I just learn through observing the way that the world has with men and women. When I say this they nod their heads wisely, and say that they understand, and I nod my head wisely also, and that seems to satisfy them. But the thing I say to them is a lie, of course.
For it is not the story that counts. What matters is the way you tell it. The important thing is to know just at what moment you must knock out your pipe on your veldskoen, and at what stage of the story you must start talking about the School Committee at Drogevlei. Another necessary thing is to know what part of the story to leave out.
And you can never learn these things.
Look at Floris, the last of the Van Barnevelts. There is no doubt that he had a good story, and he should have been able to
get people to listen to it. And yet nobody took any notice of him or of the things he had to say. Just because he couldn't tell the story properly.
Accordingly, it made me sad whenever I listened to him talk. For I could tell just where he went wrong. He never knew the moment at which to knock the ash out of his pipe. He always mentioned his opinion of the Drogevlei School Committee in the wrong place. And, what was still worse, he didn't know what part of the story to leave out.
And it was no use my trying to teach him, because as I have said, this is the thing that you can never learn. And so, each time he had told his story, I would see him turn away from me, with a look of doom on his face, and walk slowly down the road, stoop-shouldered, the last of the Van Barnevelts.
 
On the wall of Floris's voorkamer is a long family tree of the Van Barnevelts. You can see it there for yourself. It goes back for over two hundred years, to the Van Barnevelts of Amsterdam. At one time it went even further back, but that was before the white ants started on the top part of it and ate away quite a lot of Van Barnevelts. Nevertheless, if you look at this list, you will notice that at the bottom, under Floris's own name, there is the last entry, “Stephanus.” And behind the name, “Stephanus,” between two bent strokes, you will read the words: “Obiit Mafeking.”
At the outbreak of the Second Boer War Floris van Barnevelt
was a widower, with one son, Stephanus, who was aged seventeen. The commando from our part of the Transvaal set off very cheerfully. We made a fine show, with our horses and our wide hats and our bandoliers, and with the sun shining on the barrels of our Mausers.
Young Stephanus van Barnevelt was the gayest of us all. But he said there was one thing he didn't like about the war, and that was that, in the end, we would have to go over the sea. He said that, after we had invaded the whole of the Cape, our commando would have to go on a ship and invade England also.
But we didn't go overseas, just then. Instead, our veldkornet told us that the burghers from our part had been ordered to join the big commando that was lying at Mafeking. We had to go and shoot a man there called Baden-Powell.
We rode steadily on into the west. After a while we noticed that our veldkornet frequently got off his horse and engaged in conversation with passing kaffirs, leading them some distance from the roadside and speaking earnestly to them. Of course, it was right that our veldkornet should explain to the kaffirs that it was war-time, now, and that the Republic expected every kaffir to stop smoking so much dagga and to think seriously about what was going on. But we noticed that each time at the end of the conversation the kaffir would point towards something, and that our veldkornet would take much pains to follow the direction of the kaffir's finger.
Of course, we understood, then, what it was all about. Our
veldkornet was a young fellow, and he was shy to let us see that he didn't know the way to Mafeking.
Somehow, after that, we did not have so much confidence in our veldkornet.
 
After a few days we got to Mafeking. We stayed there a long while, until the English troops came up and relieved the place. We left, then. We left quickly. The English troops had brought a lot of artillery with them. And if we had difficulty in finding the road to Mafeking, we had no difficulty in finding the road away from Mafeking. And this time our veldkornet did not need kaffirs, either, to point with their fingers where we had to go. Even though we did a lot of travelling in the night.
Long afterwards I spoke to an Englishman about this. He said it gave him a queer feeling to hear about the other side of the story of Mafeking. He said there had been very great rejoicings in England when Mafeking was relieved, and it was strange to think of the other aspect of it – of a defeated country and of broken columns blundering through the dark.
I remember many things that happened on the way back from Mafeking. There was no moon. And the stars shone down fitfully on the road that was full of guns and frightened horses and desperate men. The veld throbbed with the hoof-beats of baffled commandos. The stars looked down on scenes that told sombrely of a nation's ruin; they looked on the muzzles of the Mausers that had failed the Transvaal for the first time.
Of course, as a burgher of the Republic, I knew what my duty
was. And that was to get as far away as I could from the place where, in the sunset, I had last seen English artillery. The other burghers knew their duty also. Our kommandants and veldkor-nets had to give very few orders. Nevertheless, though I rode very fast, there was one young man who rode still faster. He kept ahead of me all the time. He rode, as a burgher should ride when there may be stray bullets flying, with his head well down and with his arms almost round the horse's neck.
He was Stephanus, the young son of Floris van Barnevelt.
 
There was much grumbling and dissatisfaction, some time afterwards, when our leaders started making an effort to get the commandos in order again. In the end they managed to get us to halt. But most of us felt that this was a foolish thing to do. Especially as there was still a lot of firing going on, all over the place, in haphazard fashion, and we couldn't tell how far the English had followed us in the dark. Furthermore, the commandos had scattered in so many different directions that it seemed hopeless to try and get them together again until after the war. Stephanus and I dismounted and stood by our horses. Soon there was a large body of men around us. Their figures looked strange and shadowy in the starlight. Some of them stood by their horses. Others sat on the grass by the roadside. “Vas staan, burghers, vas staan,” came the commands of our officers. And all the time we could still hear what sounded a lot like lyddite. It seemed foolish to be waiting there.
“The next they'll want,” Stephanus van Barnevelt said, “is for
us to go back to Mafeking. Perhaps our kommandant has left his tobacco pouch behind, there.”
Some of us laughed at this remark, but Floris, who had not dismounted, said that Stephanus ought to be ashamed of himself for talking like that. From what we could see of Floris in the gloom, he looked quite impressive, sitting very straight in the saddle, with the stars shining on his beard and rifle.
“If the veldkornet told me to go back to Mafeking,” Floris said, “I would go back.”
“That's how a burgher should talk,” the veldkornet said, feeling flattered. For he had had little authority since the time we found out what he was talking to the kaffirs for.
“I wouldn't go back to Mafeking for anybody,” Stephanus replied, “unless, maybe, it's to hand myself over to the English.”
“We can shoot you for doing that,” the veldkornet said. “It's contrary to military law.”
“I wish I knew something about military law,” Stephanus answered. “Then I would draw up a peace treaty between Stephanus van Barnevelt and England.”
Some of the men laughed again. But Floris shook his head sadly. He said the Van Barnevelts had fought bravely against Spain in a war that lasted eighty years.
 
Suddenly, out of the darkness there came a sharp rattle of musketry, and our men started getting uneasy again. But the sound of the firing decided Stephanus. He jumped on his horse quickly.
“I am turning back,” he said, “I am going to hands-up to the English.”
“No, don't go,” the veldkornet called to him lamely, “or at least, wait until the morning. They may shoot you in the dark by mistake.” As I have said, the veldkornet had very little authority.
Two days passed before we again saw Floris van Barnevelt. He was in a very worn and troubled state, and he said that it had been very hard for him to find his way back to us.
“You should have asked the kaffirs,” one of our number said with a laugh. “All the kaffirs know our veldkornet.”
But Floris did not speak about what happened that night, when we saw him riding out under the starlight, following after his son and shouting to him to be a man and to fight for his country. Also, Floris did not mention Stephanus again, his son who was not worthy to be a Van Barnevelt.
 
After that we got separated. Our veldkornet was the first to be taken prisoner. And I often felt that he must feel very lonely on St. Helena. Because there were no kaffirs from whom he could ask the way out of the barbed-wire camp.
Then, at last our leaders came together at Vereeniging, and peace was made. And we returned to our farms, relieved that the war was over, but with heavy hearts at the thought that it had all been for nothing and that over the Transvaal the Vierkleur would not wave again.
BOOK: Mafeking Road
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