The Place and the People

Sanni Metelerkamp August 10, 2015
10 min read
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    It was winter in the Great Karroo. The evening air was so crisp and cutting that one seemed to hear the crick-crack of the frost, as it formed on the scant vegetation. A skraal windje blew from the distant mountains, bringing with it a mingled odour of karroo-bush, sheep-kraals, and smoke from the Kafir huts—none, perhaps, desirable in itself, but all so blent and purified in that rare, clear atmosphere, and so subservient to the exhilarating freshness, that Pietie van der Merwe took several sniffs of pleasure as he peered into the pale moonlight over the lower half of the divided door. Then, with a little involuntary shiver, he closed the upper portion and turned to the ruddy warmth of the purring fire, which Willem was feeding with mealie-cobs from the basket beside him.

    Little Jan sat in the corner of the wide, old-fashioned rustbank, his large grey eyes gazing wistfully into the red heart of the fire, while his hand absently stroked Torry, the fox terrier, curled up beside him.

    Mother, in her big Madeira chair at the side table, yawned a little over her book; for, winter or summer, the mistress of a karroo farm leads a busy life, and the end of the day finds her ready for a well-earned rest.

    Pietie held his hands towards the blaze, turning his head now and again towards the door at the far end of the room. Presently this opened and father appeared, comfortably and leisurely, as if such things as shearing, dipping, and ploughing were no part of his day’s work. Only the healthy tan, the broad shoulders, the whole well-developed physique proclaimed his strenuous, open-air life. His eye rested with pleasure on the scene before him—the bright fire, throwing gleam and shadow on painted wall and polished woodwork, and giving a general air of cosiness to everything; the table spread for the evening meal; the group at the fireside; and his dear helpmate who was responsible for the comfort and happiness of his well-appointed home.

    He was followed in a moment by Cousin Minnie, the bright-faced young governess. Their coming caused a stir among the children. Little Jan slowly withdrew his gaze from the fire, and, with more energy than might have been expected from his dreamy look, pushed and prodded the sleeping terrier along the rustbank so as to make room for Cousin Minnie.

    Pietie sprang to his father’s side. “Now may I go and call Outa Karel?” he asked eagerly, and at an acquiescent “Yes, my boy,” away he sped.

    It was a strange figure that came at his bidding, shuffling, stooping, halting, and finally emerging into the firelight. A stranger might have been forgiven for fleeing in terror, for the new arrival looked like nothing so much as an ancient and muscular gorilla in man’s clothes, and walking uncertainly on its hind legs.

    He was not quite four feet in height, with shoulders and hips disproportionately broad, and long arms, the hands of which reached midway between knee and ankle. His lower limbs were clothed in nondescript garments fashioned from wildcat and dassie skins; a faded brown coat, which from its size had evidently once belonged to his master, hung nearly to his knees; while, when he removed his shapeless felt hat, a red kopdoek was seen to be wound tightly round his head. No one had ever seen Outa Karel without his kopdoek, but it was reported that the head it covered was as smooth and devoid of hair as an ostrich egg.

    His yellow-brown face was a network of wrinkles, across which his flat nose sprawled broadly between high cheekbones; his eyes, sunk far back into his head, glittered dark and beady like the little wicked eyes of a snake peeping from the shadow of a hole in the rocks. His wide mouth twisted itself into an engaging grin, which extended from ear to ear, as, winking and blinking his bright little eyes, he twirled his old hat in his claw-like hands and tried to make obeisance to his master and mistress.

    The attempt was unsuccessful on account of the stiffness of his joints, but it never failed to amuse those who, times without number, had seen it repeated. To those who witnessed it for the first time it was something to be remembered—the grotesque, disproportionate form; the ape-like face, that yet was so curiously human; the humour and kindness that gleamed from the cavernous eyes, which seemed designed to express only malevolence and cunning; the long waving arms and crooked fingers; the yellow skin for all the world like a crumpled sheet of india-rubber pulled in a dozen different directions.

    That he was a consummate actor, and, not to put too fine a point on it, an old humbug of the first water, goes without saying, for these characteristics are inherent in the native nature. But in spite of this, and the uncanniness of his appearance, there was something about Outa Karel that drew one to him. Of his real devotion to his master and the “beautiful family Van der Merwe,” there could be no question; while, above everything, was the feeling that here was one of an outcast race, one of the few of the original inhabitants who had survived the submerging tide of civilization; who, knowing no law but that of possession, had been scared and chased from their happy hunting grounds, first by the Hottentots, then by the powerful Bantu, and later by the still more terrifying palefaced tribes from over the seas. Though the origin of the Bushman is lost in the mists of antiquity, the Hottentot conquest of him is a matter of history, and it is well known that the victors were in the habit, while killing off the men, to take unto themselves wives from among the women of the vanquished race. Hence the fact that a perfect specimen of a Bushman is a rara avis, even in the localities where the last remnants are known to linger.

    Outa Karel could hardly be called a perfect specimen of the original race, for, though he always spoke of himself as wholly Bushman, there was a strong strain of the Hottentot about him, chiefly noticeable in his build.

    He spoke in Dutch, in the curiously expressive voice belonging to these people, just now honey-sweet with the deference he felt for his superiors.

    “Ach toch! Night, Baas. Night, Nooi. Night, Nonnie and my little baasjes. Excuse that this old Bushman does not bend to greet you; the will is there, but his knees are too stiff. Thank you, thank you, my baasje,” as Pietie dragged a low stool, covered with springbok skin, from under the desk in the recess and pushed it towards him. He settled himself on it slowly and carefully, with much creaking of joints and many strange native ejaculations.

    The little group had arranged itself anew. Cousin Minnie was in the cosy corner of the rustbank near the wall, little Jan next her with his head against her, and Torry’s head on his lap—this attention to make up for his late seeming unkindness in pushing him away.

    Pappa, with his magazine, was at the other end of the rustbank where he could, if he chose, speak to Mamma in a low tone, or peep over to see how her book was getting on. Willem had pushed the basket away so as to settle himself more comfortably against Cousin Minnie’s knee as he sat on the floor, and Pietie was on a small chair just in front of the fire.

    The centre of attention was the quaint old native, who, having relegated his duties to his children and grandchildren, lived as a privileged pensioner in the van der Merwe family he had served so faithfully for three generations. The firelight played over his quaint figure with the weirdest effect, lighting up now one portion of it, now another, showing up his astonishingly small hands and crooked fingers, as he pointed and gesticulated incessantly—for these people speak as much by gesture as by sound—and throwing exaggerated shadows on the wall.

    This was the hour beloved by the children, when the short wintry day had ended, and, in the interval between the coming of darkness and the evening meal, their dear Outa Karel was allowed in to tell them stories.

    And weird and wonderful stories they were—tales of spooks and giants, of good and bad spirits, of animals that talked, of birds, beasts and insects that exercised marvellous influence over the destinies of unsuspecting mankind. But most thrilling of all, perhaps, were Outa Karel’s personal experiences—adventures by veld and krantz with lion, tiger, jackal and crocodile, such as no longer fall to the lot of mortal man.

    The children would listen, wide-eyed and breathless, and even their elders, sparing a moment’s attention from book or writing, would feel a tremor of excitement, unable to determine where reality ended and fiction began, so inextricably were they intermingled as this old Iago of the desert wove his romances.

    “Now, Outa, tell us a nice story, the nicest you know,” said little Jan, nestling closer to Cousin Minnie, and issuing his command as the autocrat of the “One Thousand and One Nights” might have done.

    “Ach! but klein baas, this stupid old black one knows no new stories, only the old ones of Jakhals and Leeuw, and how can he tell even those when his throat is dry—ach, so dry with the dust from the kraals?”

    He forced a gurgling cough, and his small eyes glittered expectantly. Then suddenly he started with well-feigned surprise and beamed on Pietie, who stood beside him with a soopje in the glass kept for his especial use.

    This was a nightly performance. The lubrication was never forgotten, but it was often purposely delayed in order to see what pretext Outa would use to call attention to the fact of its not having been offered. Sore throat, headache, stomach-ache, cold, heat, rheumatism, old age, a birthday (invented for the occasion), the killing of a snake or the breaking-in of a young horse—anything served as an excuse for what was a time-honoured custom.

    “Thank you, thank you, mij klein koning. Gezondheid to Baas, Nooi, Nonnie, and the beautiful family van der Merwe.” He lifted the glass, gulped down the contents, and smacked his lips approvingly. “Ach! if a Bushman only had a neck like an ostrich! How good would the soopje taste all the way down! Now I am strong again; now I am ready to tell the story of Jakhals and Oom Leeuw.”

    “About Oom Leeuw carrying Jakhals on his back?” asked Willem.

    “No, baasje. This is quite a different one.”

    And with many strange gesticulations, imitating every action and changing his voice to suit the various characters, the old man began:

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