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Authors: Herman Charles Bosman

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BOOK: Mafeking Road
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And Floris van Barnevelt put back in its place, on the wall of
the voorkamer, the copy of his family tree that had been carried with him in his knapsack throughout the war. Then a new schoolmaster came to this part of the Marico, and after a long talk with Floris, the schoolmaster wrote behind Stephanus's name, between two curved lines, the two words that you can still read there: “Obiit Mafeking.”
Consequently, if you ask any person hereabouts what “obiit” means, he is able to tell you, right away, that it is a foreign word, and that it means to ride up to the English, holding your Mauser in the air, with a white flag tied to it, near the muzzle.
But it was long afterwards that Floris van Barnevelt started telling his story.
And then they took no notice of him. And they wouldn't allow him to be nominated for the Drogevlei School Committee on the grounds that a man must be wrong in the head to talk in such an irresponsible fashion.
But I knew that Floris had a good story, and that its only fault was that he told it badly. He mentioned the Drogevlei School Committee too soon. And he knocked the ash out of his pipe in the wrong place. And he always insisted on telling that part of the story that he should have left out.
The Love Potion
You mention the juba-plant (Oom Schalk Lourens said). Oh, yes, everybody in the Marico knows about the juba-plant. It grows high up on the krantzes, and they say you must pick off one of its little red berries at midnight, under the full moon. Then, if you are a young man, and you are anxious for a girl to fall in love with you, all you have to do is to squeeze the juice of the juba-berry into her coffee.
They say that after the girl has drunk the juba-juice she begins to forget all sorts of things. She forgets that your forehead is rather low, and that your ears stick out, and that your mouth is too big. She even forgets having told you, the week before last, that she wouldn't marry you if you were the only man in the Transvaal.
All she knows is that the man she gazes at, over her empty coffee-cup, has grown remarkably handsome. You can see from
this that the plant must be very potent in its effects. I mean, if you consider what some of the men in the Marico look like.
One young man I knew, however, was not very enthusiastic about juba-juice. In fact, he always said that before he climbed up the krantz one night, to pick one of those red berries, he was more popular with the girls than he was afterwards. This young man said that his decline in favour with the girls of the neighbourhood might perhaps be due to the fact that, shortly after he had picked the juba-berry, he lost most of his front teeth.
This happened when the girl's father, who was an irascible sort of fellow, caught the young man in the act of squeezing juba-juice into his daughter's cup.
And afterwards, while others talked of the magic properties of this love potion, the young man would listen in silence, and his lip would curl in a sneer over the place where his front teeth used to be.
“Yes, kêrels,” he would lisp at the end, “I suppose I must have picked that juba-berry at the wrong time. Perhaps the moon wasn't full enough, or something. Or perhaps it wasn't just exactly midnight. I am only glad now that I didn't pick off two of those red berries while I was about it.”
We all felt it was a sad thing what the juba-plant had done to that young man.
But with Gideon van der Merwe it was different.
One night I was out shooting in the veld with a lamp fastened
on my hat. You know that kind of shooting: in the glare of the lamp-light you can see only the eyes of the thing you are aiming at, and you get three months if you are caught. They made it illegal to hunt by lamp-light since the time a policeman got shot in the foot, this way, when he was out tracking cattle-smugglers on the Bechuanaland border.
The magistrate at Zeerust, who did not know the ways of the cattle-smugglers, found that the shooting was an accident. This verdict satisfied everybody except the policeman, whose foot was still bandaged when he came into court. But the men in the Volksraad, some of whom had been cattle-smugglers themselves, knew better than the magistrate did as to how the policeman came to have a couple of buckshot in the soft part of his foot, and accordingly they brought in this new law.
Therefore I walked very quietly that night on the krantz.
Frequently I put out my light and stood very still amongst the trees, and waited long moments to make sure I was not being followed. Ordinarily, there would have been little to fear, but a couple of days before two policemen had been seen disappearing into the bush. By their looks they seemed young policemen, who were anxious for promotion, and who didn't know that it is more becoming for a policeman to drink an honest farmer's peach brandy than to arrest him for hunting by lamp-light.
I was walking along, turning the light from side to side, when suddenly, about a hundred paces from me, in the full brightness
of the lamp, I saw a pair of eyes. When I also saw, above the eyes, a policeman's khaki helmet, I remembered that a moonlight night, such as that was, was not good for finding buck.
So I went home.
I took the shortest way, too, which was over the side of the krantz – the steep side – and on my way down I clutched at a variety of branches, tree-roots, stone ledges and tufts of grass. Later on, at the foot of the krantz, when I came to and was able to sit up, there was that policeman bending over me.
“Oom Schalk,” he said, “I was wondering if you would lend me your lamp.”
I looked up. It was Gideon van der Merwe, the young policeman who had been stationed for some time at Derdepoort. I had met him on several occasions and had found him very likeable.
“You can have my lamp,” I answered, “but you must be careful. It's worse for a policeman to get caught breaking the law than for an ordinary man.”
Gideon van der Merwe shook his head.
“No, I don't want to go shooting with the lamp,” he said, “I want to – ”
And then he paused.
He laughed nervously.
“It seems silly to say it, Oom Schalk,” he said, “but perhaps you'll understand. I have come to look for a juba-plant. I need it for my studies. For my third-class sergeant's examination.
And it will soon be midnight, and I can't find one of those plants anywhere.
I felt sorry for Gideon. It struck me that he would never make a good policeman. If he couldn't find a juba-plant, of which there were thousands on the krantz, it would be much harder for him to find the spoor of a cattle-smuggler.
So I handed him my lamp and explained where he had to go and look. Gideon thanked me and walked off.
About half an hour later he was back.
He took a red berry out of his tunic pocket and showed it to me. For fear he should tell any more lies about needing that juba-berry for his studies, I spoke first.
“Lettie Cordier?” I asked.
Gideon nodded. He was very shy, though, and wouldn't talk much at the start. But I had guessed long ago that Gideon van der Merwe was not calling at Krisjan Cordier's house so often just to hear Krisjan relate the story of his life.
Nevertheless, I mentioned Krisjan Cordier's life-story.
“Yes,” Gideon replied, “Lettie's father has got up to what he was like at the age of seven. It has taken him a month, so far.”
“He must be glad to get you to listen,” I said, “the only other man who listened for any length of time was an insurance agent. But he left after a fortnight. By that time Krisjan had reached to only a little beyond his fifth birthday.”
“But Lettie is wonderful, Oom Schalk,” Gideon went on.
“I have never spoken more than a dozen words to her. And, of course, it is ridiculous to expect her even to look at a policeman. But to sit there, in the voorkamer, with her father talking about all the things he could do before he was six – and Lettie coming in now and again with more coffee – that is love, Oom Schalk.”
I agreed with him that it must be.
“I have worked it out,” Gideon explained, “that at the rate he is going now, Lettie's father will have come to the end of his life-story in two years' time, and after that I won't have any excuse for going there. That worries me.”
I said that no doubt it was disconcerting.
“I have tried often to tell Lettie how much I think of her,” Gideon said, “but every time, as soon as I start, I get a foolish feeling. My uniform begins to look shabby. My boots seem to curl up at the toes. And my voice gets shaky, and all I can say to her is that I will come round again, soon, as I have simply got to hear the rest of her father's life-story.”
“Then what is your idea with the juba-juice?” I asked.
“The juba-juice,” Gideon van der Merwe said, wistfully, “might make her say something first.”
We parted shortly afterwards. I took up my lamp and gun, and as I saw Gideon's figure disappear among the trees I thought of what a good fellow he was. And very simple. Still, he was best off as a policeman, I reflected. For if he was a cattle-smuggler it seemed to me that he would get arrested every time he tried to cross the border.
Next morning I rode over to Krisjan Cordier's farm to remind him about the tin of sheep-dip that he still owed me from the last dipping season.
As I stayed for only about an hour, I wasn't able to get in a word about the sheep-dip, but Krisjan managed to tell me quite a lot about the things he did at the age of nine. When Lettie came in with the coffee I made a casual remark to her father about Gideon van der Merwe.
“Oh, yes, he's an interesting young man,” Krisjan Cordier said, “and very intelligent. It is a pleasure for me to relate to him the story of my life. He says the incidents I describe to him are not only thrilling, but very helpful. I can quite understand that. I wouldn't be surprised if he is made a sergeant one of these days. For these reasons I always dwell on the more helpful parts of my story.”
I didn't take much notice of Krisjan's remarks, however. Instead, I looked carefully at Lettie when I mentioned Gideon's name. She didn't give much away, but I am quick at these things, and I saw enough. The colour that crept into her cheeks. The light that came in her eyes.
On my way back I encountered Lettie. She was standing under a thorn-tree. With her brown arms and her sweet, quiet face and her full bosom, she was a very pretty picture. There was no doubt that Lettie Cordier would make a fine wife for any man. It wasn't hard to understand Gideon's feelings about her.
“Lettie,” I asked, “do you love him?”
“I love him, Oom Schalk,” she answered.
It was as simple as that.
Lettie guessed I meant Gideon van der Merwe, without my having spoken his name. Accordingly, it was easy for me to acquaint Lettie with what had happened the night before, on the krantz, in the moonlight. At least, I only told her the parts that mattered to her, such as the way I explained to Gideon where the juba-plant grew. Another man might have wearied her with a long and unnecessary description of the way he fell down the krantz, clutching at branches and tree-roots. But I am different. I told her that it was Gideon who fell down the krantz.
After all, it was Lettie's and Gideon's love affair, and I didn't want to bring myself into it too much.
“Now you'll know what to do, Lettie,” I said. “Put your coffee on the table within easy reach of Gideon. Then give him what you think is long enough to squeeze the juba-juice into your cup.”
“Perhaps it will be even better,” Lettie said, “if I watch through a crack in the door.”
I patted her head approvingly.
“After that you come into the voorkamer and drink your coffee,” I said.
“Yes, Oom Schalk,” she answered simply.
“And when you have drunk the coffee,” I concluded, “you'll know what to do next. Only don't go too far.”
It was pleasant to see the warm blood mount to her face. As I
rode off I said to myself that Gideon van der Merwe was a lucky fellow.
There isn't much more to tell about Lettie and Gideon.
When I saw Gideon some time afterwards, he was very elated, as I had expected he would be.
“So the juba-plant worked?” I enquired.
“It was wonderful, Oom Schalk,” Gideon answered, “and the funny part of it was that Lettie's father was not there, either, when I put the juba-juice into her coffee. Lettie had brought him a message, just before then, that he was wanted in the mealie-lands.”
“And was the juba-juice all they claim for it?” I asked.
“You'd be surprised how quickly it acted,” he said. “Lettie just took one sip at the coffee and then jumped straight on to my lap.”
But then Gideon van der Merwe winked in a way that made me believe that he was not so very simple, after all.
BOOK: Mafeking Road
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