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The Place And The People

Source: Outa Karel's Stories

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:

Next: How Jakhals Fed Oom Leeuw

Previous: The Long Winter

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