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from Old Man Savarin stories
tales of Canada and Canadians (1917)
THE Boer puzzled us. It was not because he loomed so big in the haze against the sunset; but he seemed at a mile's distance to detect us. We thought the cover perfect, for the hackthorn tops were higher than our horses' heads. If he from so far could see patches of khaki through bushes, his eyes must be better than our field-glasses. If he did not see us, why did he wave his hat as in salutation?
"Maybe he only suspect one patrol at de ford. Vat you t'ink, Sergeant McTavish?" said Lieutenant Deschamps to me.
"Perhaps he thinks some of his own kind may hold the ford," I suggested.
The others said nothing. They were fifteen French Canadians, including Corporal Jongers. We lay still behind our prone horses, and kept our Krags on the Boer.
He seemed to diminish as he advanced slowly from the mirage, but still he looked uncommonly big and venerable, too. His hair and beard grew long and white, though he sat up as alert as any young man. At ten yards a pack-pony followed him. When half a mile away the burgher raised both hands above his head.
"He come for surrender, you t'ink, sergeant?" Lieutenant Deschamps is a gentleman. Because I was of another race he always treated me with more than the consideration due to a good non-coin. Or possibly it was because he knew I had been advocate in Montreal before joining the mounted Canadian contingent.
"Better keep down and keep him covered," I replied. "That may be a signal." I stared about the horizon. The veldt was bare, except for the straggle of hackthorns fringing the curve about the ford. There could be no other Boer within three miles of us, unless hidden by the meanderings of the Wolwe, which runs twelve feet below the plain. But we had searched ten miles of its bed during the day. Westward lay the kopjes from among which the old Boer had apparently ridden.
He came calmly down the breach of the opposite bank and as far as the middle of the brawling shallow within fifty yards of us before Deschamps cried "Halt!" At the word we sprang up, accoutrements rattling, horses snorting. The old burgher looked up at us quizzically, passing his hand down his beard and gathering its length above his mouth before he spoke.
"Take care some of those guns don't go off," he said, with no trace of Dutch accent
"You surrender?" Deschamps stepped forward.
"Sir, I am going to Swartzdorp. Did you not see me hold up my hands?"
"But for sure you could not see us here?"
He smiled and pointed up to the sky. In the blue a vulture swung wide above us. "So I knew," said the burgher, "Khakis were hiding. Boers would have come out. They would have recognized me."
"Bon! The great landowner! I have much pleasure to see you. Come in, monsieur. Eef only you brought in your commando, how glad!"
"They may come yet," he said. "It depends." He shook his rein, and the big bay brought him up the breach into the midst of us. The pack-pony, which had imitated his halt, followed.
"You will not stop me. I have private business at Swartzdorp," he said.
"Truly I regret," said Deschamps. "But my orders! Here you must stay, monsieur, this night. To-morrow General Pole. He will be most glad to parole you, I have hope."
"Oh, very well, lieutenant," said Swartz, philosophically. "I dare say he won't send me to St. Helena." He dismounted, leaving his Mauser strapped to his saddle. Then he handed me his bandoleer. "I make you welcome to my pack also," he said hospitably. "There's some biltong and meal. Perhaps it will improve your fare."
"It will be poor stuff if it doesn't," I told him.
"You give your parole, sir?" asked Deschamps.
"For the night, yes. I will not try to escape."
His cordial, easy accents came with a certain surprising effect from one who was so unkempt and, in spite of his years, so formidable. I had never before seen one of the great Boer landowners. In his manner one could perceive, if not a certain condescension, at least the elevated kindness of a patriarchal gentleman accustomed to warm by affability the hearts of many descendants and dependents. About Swartzdorp we had heard much of his English mother, his English wife, and his lifelong friendship with English officers and gentlemen. It did not seem surprising that he should have come in voluntarily now that Bloewfontein and Pretoria were in Lord Roberts's hands.
It was cold for us in khaki that evening by the Wolwe, though we did not lack overcoats. The spruit tinkled icily along patches of gravel in the blue clay, and late June's high moon seemed pouring down a Canadian wintriness. "No fire," ordered Deschamps, lest far-sighted Boer parties, skilled in surprises, might locate us. But the old burgher showed how to make small glowing heaps of dry offal, which had been plentifully left of old by troops of deer and antelope coming to drink at the spruit. Over one of these tiny smokeless fires our lieutenant sat with the prisoner. I think I see again the reflection of the little flame flickering on the old giant's enormous beard and shapely outspread hands.
We had supped heavily on his meat and meal, but sleep in that nipping air came by dozes only, and drowsiness departed when digestion had relieved repletion. At midnight, when the vedettes were changed and the moon sagged low, we all were more wakeful than early in the evening. There had been little talk, and that in the low voices of endurance; but now Deschamps and Swartz fell into discourse about the Kimberley mines. This led to discussing the greater diamonds of South Africa, and so on till the burgher began a story stranger than fiction:
"One of the biggest stones ever taken from blue clay is still uncut. It has never been offered for sale. Near this very place it was found by Vassell Swartz, my cousin. The man is not rich even for a Free State burgher. He is fond of money. He believes his diamond to be worth twelve thousand pounds. No man could wish harder to sell anything. And yet he has not offered it. He has not even shown it. His wife has not seen it. He has had it constantly near him for eleven years. He has handled it frequently in its setting. But he has not ventured to look at it since the morning after he found it. You wonder at that. Is it possible a rough diamond can shine so bright as dangerously to dazzle the eyes? No; Vassell would be glad to stare at it all day. But its setting prevents him. And yet he set it himself."
The old burgher paused and looked about on our puzzled faces with some air of satisfaction at their interest.
"It is quite a riddle," said Deschamps.
"So it is. And I will make it harder. You have been told that we Boers think nothing of killing Kaffirs? But all Swartzdorp could tell you that my cousin Vassell could scarcely bear to let a Kaffir out of his sight. That is mysterious? Well, I will not go on talking in parables. I will tell you the thing just as I heard it from Vassell or know about it myself.
"Eleven years ago, Vassell and his brother, my cousin Claas, went off as usual to Makori's country beyond the Limpopo, elephant-hunting. Ivory was so plenty that they trekked back a month earlier than they had expected. On the return Vassell's riding-horse fell lame not long after crossing this very Wolwe spruit by a higher ford. My cousin gave the beast no rest till evening, and no attention until after they had made a laager against lions and had eaten supper. Then he took a brand from the fire and looked into the hoof. In it he found a whitish stone of about the bigness of an elephant-bullet of six to the pound. It was of the colour of alum, and in the torchlight it glistened as the scale of a fish.
"Vassell had never seen a rough diamond. And he had heard of diamonds as brighter than glittering glass. He thought only that the pebble was a pretty stone. The man's heart was soft with nearing his wife and children, so he slipped the pebble into his empty elephant-bullet pouch, thinking to give it for a toy to his little Anna. There it lay forgotten until his fingers went groping for a bullet at the next daybreak. Kaffirs were then trying to rush my cousins' laager.
"Wild Kaffirs these were, driven from Kimberley for unruliness in drink. They were going back to their tribe; they had come far without food, and they smelled the meat and meal in the wagons so Matakit afterward told. But no hunger could have driven them against a Boer laager. They mistook the wagons for the wagons of Englishmen."
The French Canadians smiled unoffended, but my jaws snapped. Swartz turned to me courteously:
"They mistook the wagons for those of English traders unskilled in arms and trekking provisions to the mines. Though their first rush showed them their mistake, they went mad over their losses and came on twice more. Then they guessed, from the way my cousins reserved their fire, that their ammunition was low. So Matakit howled them on for a fourth rush.
"My cousins and their six Christian Kaffirs were now in alarm, for their cartridges were nearly all gone. It was then that Vassell's fingers groped in his elephant-bullet pouch, where he felt something rounding out the leather. That was the forgotten pebble. But its bigness was too great for the muzzle-loading elephant-rifle. So my cousin rammed it into the wide-mouthed, old-fashioned roer, a blunderbuss that our fathers' fathers praised because it frightened Kaffirs more than it hurt them. In justice to the roer it should have been loaded with a handful of slugs. But with only powder and the pebble it made such flash and noise that all the living wild blacks, but one, ran away howling. The one that fell before Vassell's pebble was the biggest of all, and their leader. There he lay kicking and bellowing like a buffalo bull, ten yards from the wagons.
"'While he bawled we knelt in the laager,' Vassell told me, 'and we offered up thanks for this our deliverance, even like unto the deliver- ance of David by the pebble of the brook.'
"Then they ate breakfast while their Kaffirs inspanned, and still the wild one roared.
"'It would be merciful, brother Vassell,' said Claas as they drank coffee, 'to put the Lord's creature out of his pain.'
"'Nay,' said Vassell; 'my conscience will not consent to what Free State law might call murder. And, moreover, the Kaffir's pain is a plain judgment of the Almighty.' Vassell is a dopper, like Oom Paul, and a dopper is quick to see the Almighty operating through himself. So they left the black thief gnashing, with five more who lay still, meat for vultures' beaks or lions' jaws.
"In four or five hours' time my cousins were nigh to Truter's drift on the Modder. There they saw two Englishmen land one Israelite digging into the blue-clay shoal.
"'Good day,' shouts Claas. 'What are you digging for?'
"'Diamonds, Dutchman, dn you,' said the Englishmen, laughing.
"They came up out of the river-bed and showed my cousins four small rough stones which they had found elsewhere.
"Vassell looked closely at the stones. Then he knew that his pebble had been a great gem. He put innocent, simple dopper questions about the value of diamonds. And the Israelite said that a first-rate stone of the bigness of more than an elephant-bullet would be worth from twelve to twenty thousand pounds. Vassell felt that Israelite's eyes piercing him, and so he gave no more sign of excitement than a skull. But he was wondering if the grandfathers' old roer had sent the pebble through the Kaffir, which seemed unlikely.
"My cousins traded the flesh of a springbok for cartridges, and the English went away up the spruit, while Claus got ready to cross at Truter's. But Vassell made delay; he said that hunger was rummaging his inside.
"'And that was the truth, Emanuel,' he told me later, 'for we had trekked since dawn. But it is not always needful to tell all the truth. Was I to arouse in Claas a greedy desire to share in the diamond? True,' said Vassell, 'we had agreed to share and share alike in the hunt, but the stone was not ivory, skin, nor meat, and I alone found it. We are commanded to agree with our adversary "in the way with him." And by halting in that place for the boiling of coffee there would be time to pray for direction. If the Almighty would have us trek back to the wounded Kaffir, it would be wise to turn before crossing at Truter's.'
"Of course my cousin Claas, when he heard of Vassell's hunger, felt hungry too, and the Kaffirs were told to prepare the meal. Meantime Vassell took his Bible from the wagon-box and fell on his knees. He expected the Lord would order him back to the Wolwe, and so it happened. But to induce Claas to obey the Lord's direction without understanding the whole thing was the trouble.
"Like an inspiration a familiar text came to Vassell's mind. 'Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.' He showed this to Claas as his reason for turning about. The text had a new meaning for Vassell. I tell you again he felt that he had been inspired to remember it. You have to bear that in mind, or you will not rightly understand how his brain was afterward affected.
"'But it would be foolishness to apply the text to a wild Kaffir four hours' trek back,' said Claas.
"'Nay, not if the Kaffir be subdued,' said Vassell.
"'He is more than subdued; he is dead,' said Claas.
"'Nay, he may not yet have perished,' said Vassell. But he felt sure the black was dead. And he felt equally sure he had been inspired to understand that he himself should obtain mercy in the shape of the diamond if he returned even as the good Samaritan to the Kaffir fallen by the way. Still Claas was stiff-necked, until Vassell opened the Book at Jeremiah iii. 12: 'Return, . . . for I am merciful, saith the Lord.' He handed it to Claas without a word.
"Claas naturally supposed that Vassell had opened the Bible at random, as the doppers often do when they are seeking direction. And hence Claas saw in this text a clear leading back to the Wolwe. Yet he wished to rest and smoke tobacco for a long hour after eating. But Vassell was greatly inspired with texts that day. He pointed to I Samuel xx. 38: 'Jonathan cried after the lad. Make speed; haste, stay not.' Then he fell into such a groaning and sighing about it that Claas could not smoke in peace.
"'Anything is better than your rumblings,' said Claas, and so they hastened on the backward course. 'For,' as Vassell told me, 'I was in deep tribulation of fear lest the vultures might gulp down the diamond, or some beak strike it afar.'"
Here the huge old burgher sat up straighter and paused so unexpectedly that his sudden silence was startling. I imagined he listened to something far off in the stillness of the waning moon. Lieutenant Deschamps and the French Canadians sat indifferent, but I sprang up and put hands to my ears. Nothing could I hear but the occasional stamping of our horses, the walking hoofs of our vedettes by the river's bend, and the clinking of swift water over gravel.
"Did you hear something strange?" the patriarch asked me.
"Did you?" I asked.
"Is it likely that a great-grandfather's ears can hear better than a young man's?" he asked courteously.
"But you stopped to listen," I replied.
Then he shamed me by saying gently: "An old voice may need a little rest. But now I will go on:
"My cousins trekked back as fast as their oxen could walk. They found the Kaffir still squirming, and covering his eyes from the vultures. This went to Vassell's heart. He could not cut the diamond out of the living. And perhaps it was not in the man. Vassell drove away the vultures and examined the wound. Then his heart was lifted up exceedingly, for as he told me, 'fear had been heavy in me lest the diamond had gone clear through the Kaffir and been lost on the veldt. But now my fingers felt it under the flesh of his back. An inch more had sent it through. And it seemed so sure the pagan must die before morning that my conscience was clear against extracting the stone in haste.'
"This Wolwe Veldt was then Lion Veldt and Vassell thought it prudent to carry the Kaffir into the night-laager, for lions bolt big chunks, and the diamond might be in one of them. Claas consented, and so the tame Kaffirs lugged the wild one into one of the ivory-wagons, and left him to die at his leisure.
"Late in the night Vassell, wakened by Claas snoring, felt a strong temptation. He might get up and knife out the stone unseen. 'But I put the temptation away,' he told me, 'for my movement might waken Claas, or the Kaffir might kick or groan under the knife, and my brother might spy on me. So I mercifully awaited the hour when the Lord would let the diamond come into my hands without Claas suspecting anything. Besides, it was against my conscience to cut the Kaffir up warm when it seemed so sure he would be cold before morning.'
"But next morning the Kaffir was neither dead nor alive. And my cousins were keen to see their wives and children. They must trek on. But Vassell could not leave the diamond. 'And to end the Kaffir's life was,' he told me, 'more than ever against my conscience. That first text, "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy," kept coming back into my mind. It scared me. It seemed to mean I should have the diamond to myself only if I spared the Kaffir. If I killed him Class might see me extract the stone and claim half. Moreover, I felt sure the jolting of the wagon would end the pagan soon.'
"So they trekked. When they outspanned at Swartzdorp, two days later, the Kaffir was more alive than on the first day. No reward yet for conscientious Vassell! He stayed only a day with his wife, and then trekked for Bloemfontein with the Kaffir in his horse-wagon. Claas stayed at Swartzdorp. And all at Swartzdorp thought Vassell had gone crazy about the black.
"I was then residing in Bloemfontein, attending a meeting of the Raad. There I saw Vassell gaping at me in the market-place. Never before had I seen trouble in the man's face. When he told me he had brought a hurt Kaffir all the miles from Swartzdorp I felt sure the man was mad.
"'It may be the Kaffir saved your life from lions?' I asked him.
"'Nay; I saved his life,' he groaned. 'For we are commanded to do good unto our enemies. And, moreover, this is the Kaffir I fired it into.'
"'Fired what?' I asked, not then knowing a word of it all.
"'Emanuel,' he said, 'my soul is deep in trouble, and surely God has sent you to counsel me. He commanded me to bring the Kaffir here. The text he put into my mind will not go out of my mind. I dream of it each night, and I dream of the Kaffir with it, so it must mean him. And to be merciful that I may obtain the promised mercy I have brought him to the hospital.'
"'What does this rant mean? Put it in plain Taal,' I said.
"Vassell looked all about the market-place, tiptoed his lips to my ears, and whispered, 'Come into my horse-wagon.'
"I climbed up in front under the cover, and then heard breathing behind the seat. There lay the Kaffir. I turned on Vassell with 'You said you brought him to the hospital.'
"'I am afraid to take him there.'
"'Afraid they will require you to pay?'
"'Nay, that is not the trouble. I will reveal all to you.'
"Then he whispered to me all that I have told you, my friends.
"'It was borne in on me,' Vassell said, 'that the surgeons would cut out the diamond to save the Kaffir's life, and thus I should obtain the mercy. But now I am in fear they will not let me be present at the operation. They will keep the diamond if they get time to examine it.'
"'Drive to the hospital,' I said. 'They will let you be present. I will arrange that. Have you money?'
"Yes; he had sold his four best tusks for English gold. So he had plenty to pay the doctors if a bribe should prove necessary.
"But it was not needed. The house-surgeon had the Kaffir carried in, and they examined him in our presence. Then they told Vassell it was a beautiful case involving the kidneys in some extraordinary way, and they wished to watch what would happen if Matakit lived that was the outrageous Kaffir's name. To cut the bullet out, they said for you may be sure Vassell never mentioned diamond to them would kill the Kaffir. And if they killed him quickly, medical science might forego valuable knowledge which it might gain if they didn't operate an hour before he was quite out of danger by the wound.
"Think of my conscientious cousin's sad situation!" The old giant gazed about on us as if without guile. "Twelve thousand pounds! And the surgeons would not let him take the Kaffir away. Nor would they let Vassell stay in the ward with his diamond! And he dared not tell the doctors why the operation would have comforted him, lest they should secretly explore the Kaffir as diamondiferous clay!"
Here again the tale paused. A sardonic tone had for an instant been steely in the genial voice. But the face of the old man was as in a placid dream. We volunteers, trusting all to our vedettes, grinned, thinking only of Vassell's dilemma. The burgher seemed to ponder on it; or maybe, I thought, he was resting his voice again. So ten seconds passed. Then I heard the rush and grunt of a flac-flarc, the veldt pig. It seemed to have been startled out of the spruit by a vedette, for we faintly heard a horse snort and a man scold. The moon was now very low, but all seemed unchanged except for an increasing restlessness of the picketed horses. They had replied to the snort of the vedette's beast. In an interval of tense silence, the old Africander stared about on our faces with a curious inspection that I now think of as having been one of such pity as the deaf perceive in other men's faces. But at the time I supposed he but wished to assure himself that all were attentively awaiting the rest of his story.
Yet when the old burgher spoke again he seemed to have forgotten the great Swartz diamond.
"Such silence on this veldt!" he murmured. "I remember it alive with great game. Not twenty miles from here I have lain often awake in the night to a concert of lions and hyenas and jackals, with the stamping of wildebeests, and the barking of quaggas, and the rushing away of springbok and blesbok as the breeze gave them our scent. Now we hear nothing, my friends nothing whatever moving on the plain?"
"Only the horses and the pickets and the stream," said Deschamps.
"But I," said the old burgher, "hear more. I hear the sounds of ghosts of troops of great game. And I hear with those sounds other sounds as of the ghosts of a needless war." He sighed heavily, and seemed to sink into sad reverie.
Deschamps and his French volunteers would not interrupt him, but I was impatient. "How did your cousin get at the diamond?" I asked.
"He did not get at it." The whitebeard roused up amiably and resumed his tale:
"And yet he did not part with it. For six weeks the Kaffir improved in the Bloemfontein hospital. Then the day came when the surgeons told my cousin they could learn nothing more of the lovely case from outside. I do not know whether they really meant to vivisect the Kaffir, but Vassell was sure of it, for he had that diamond on the brain. He longed to have the Kaffir live out his allotted span at Swartzdorp.
"'Surely I must be with Matakit at his ending,' said Vassell to me.
"Now Matakit had been told how Vassell had mercifully saved him, and he wished for nothing better than to be Vassell's man. So, in the night, after my cousin had whispered to the Kaffir that the surgeons meant to cut him open, Matakit jumped out of the hospital window and hurried to Vassell's horse-wagon waiting on the Modder road.
"My friends, to tell you all the sad experience of my cousin with that Kaffir I should need to be with you for a week. Our time for talk together is too short indeed, I seem to hear it going in the hackthorn tops. But still I can give you a little more.
"Consider, then, that Vassell's family already thought him demented for bringing the wild black from the Wolwe. Trekking with him to Bloemfontein was worse, and carrying him back appeared complete lunacy. But Vassell was the head of a Boer family and must be obeyed by his household, from Tante Anna, his wife, to the smallest Kaffir baby bred on his farm.
"He told no one but me of the battle in his soul. It was this: the more he longed to knife the diamond out, the more his conscience was warned with that text the Lord had sent him. He had now a fixed idea that he would somehow lose the diamond unless he was merciful to Matakit.
"Out of sight of the Kaffir my cousin could not be easy, he feared so much the black would run away. To prevent that, Vassell at first carried a loaded rifle all day long. At night he locked the Kaffir in the room partitioned from his own. Its windows he barred with iron bars. This was to save Matakit from the Christian Kaffirs on the farm. At first they were likely to kill him in the dark, such was their jealousy of the wild man honored by a bed in the house of the bees, while their own Christian bones had to rest in the huts and the sheds.
"But their jealousy changed to deadly fear of Matakit. They imagined that he had bewitched the baas. Matakit, being no fool, soon smelled out that fear. As a witch doctor he forded it over them. He began to roll in fat, for they brought to his teeth the best of their food. As for their women!
"At last Tante Anna looked into this thing. Then the blood of her mother of the Great Trek ran hot in her. I happened to be visiting there at the time. She herself went at the pagan with the sjambok. Vassell turned his back, for he approved the lashing, but the Kaffir so groveled and howled under the whip that my cousin's conscience rose up untimely. It told him that he would be guilty, for the diamond's sake, of complicity in the killing if he did not interfere. Whereupon he took the sjambok from Tante Anna's hands, and ordered her to deal kindly with the Kaffir, as before.
"'Kindly! The black beast is destroying Christianity on our farm!' she wailed. 'I will slay him with my own hands. And I hope I have done it already!!'
"'Alas! no, Anna,' said Vassell. 'He will live. You have given him a reason to run away.'
"'Run away? I wish to the Lord he would run away!'
"'No, no, my woman,' Vassell whispered. 'You do not understand. Tell it to nobody but the Kaffir is worth twelve thousand English pounds to me!'
"She turned to me laughing. 'Twelve thousand pounds. My poor demented man!'
"'When he dies I will prove it,' said Vassell. "'What! A dead Kaffir worth a fortune?' She was all contempt for Vassell's folly.
"Of course he wished to explain to her. But he had an opinion that Matakit's days might be few if Tante Anna came to understand the meaning of the lump on Matakit's black back. Vassell's uncontrollable conscience required her to be no more unmerciful to Matakit. If Anna's sjambok cut out the stone, it might be lost in the litter of the yard.
"Well, my friends, the word went up and down the Orange Free State, and far into the Colony, and away across the Vaal, that Burgher Vassell Swartz was crazy with kindness for a wild Kaffir! Of course I denied it, and that carried weight, but the mystery grew, for I could not explain the case, so strong was Vassell in holding me to secrecy. To get my cousin out of his trouble I advised him to lend Matakit to me, but he would not agree. Possibly he suspected me of wishing to dig for the diamond.
"Ten years this sorrow lasted, and all the time Matakit grew fatter, till he could scarcely walk. He was the most overbearing black in all South Africa. What he suspected I do not know, but when he became sure Vassell would not let him be hurt much he wantonly abused the patience of even his devoted baas. Poor Vassell! Sometimes, to ease his sorrows, he used the sjambok on Matakit, but always too gently. Often he raised his gun to end it all; indeed, he got into a way of thinking that the devil was continually instigating him to kill the Kaffir. And every dopper knows that to yield consciously to the devil is the unforgivable sin."
The ancient burgher paused once more. And again we, whose senses were trained but to the narrow spaces between Canadian woodlands, heard nothing but a sudden louder tumult of gathered horses, the hoofs of the vedettes, and the tinkle of the spruit. I could not guess why old Emanuel looked so well pleased. He loomed taller, it seemed, as he squatted. It was as if with new vivacity that he spoke on:
"The strange things my poor cousin did! I will tell you of at least one more. Five years of Matakit went by, and never again had Vassell gone hunting afar, for he could not leave the fat Kaffir behind, and he feared Matakit would run away if he got near the country of his tribe. But in the sixth year a new inspiration came to Vassell. The Lord might send a lion if he took Matakit where lions might be convenient for sending. Doppers always regard lions as dispensations of Providence when they kill pagan Kaffirs. So he brought Matakit afar to the Lion Veldt. There Vassell would not let his men make a laager he slept in a wagon himself. And the Lord did send a lion in the night. The blacks lay by the fire. And when it fell low that lion bore a man away out into the darkness at two leaps.
"'Baas! baas!' Vassell heard his Kaffirs shout. 'Baas! The lion has taken Matakit!' For they had been dozing, and now missed the fat black.
"The Lord had sent the lion, but the devil was carrying away the diamond. Vassell must be in at the ending, as he had planned. So out with his rifle he sprang, seized a brand, and ran, whirling it into flame, on the dragged body's spoor.
"'Come back! Oh, baas, come back! The veldt is full of lions!' So the Kaffirs shrieked. But twelve thousand pounds is not forsaken by a Boer hunter for fear of lions. On Vassell ran. He would beat off the lion with the torch. Happy would be his rich life without Matakit! Plainly the Lord would be merciful to him because he had been merciful as commanded by the text.
"But from the wagons came now a bawl: 'Baas! Baas! I am here, I, Matakit! I was in a wagon.' He had sneaked away from the fire. 'It is but Impugan that the lion has taken.'
"Back went Vassell in rage. Now he would finish the Kaffir! For what would his other Kaffirs, the Christians he had bred, his best hunters, too what would they think but that he valued the accursed pagan above brave old Impugan and all the rest of them? Yet he only beat out his torch on Matakit's head before the diseased conscience stayed his hand once more."
Again the white-beard burgher paused. The picketed horses were now still. The moon was gone, and the spruit chattered in starlit darkness. There was no sound of the vedettes, but that was not strange. Yet uneasiness came over me. My comrades shared it. We all stared at the gigantic prisoner with some suspicion that I could not define. He seemed uncanny. From an old man, and especially an old Boer, sneers seemed unnatural. Some diabolical amusement seemed to animate him. As he jeered his cousin he seemed to jeer us. At first I had liked his genial tone. Now he gave me a sense of repulsion. For this I was trying to account when the old burgher stooped and freshened the fire with mealie cobs. The sparks flew high. In that momentary light he resumed his story:
"My cousin Vassell was of my Swartzdorp commando when this war began, but he is now a prisoner in St. Helena. Before he left home with his boys he instructed his wife about Matakit.
"'Be as good to him as you can,' Vassell ordered. 'But if he should come to his end before I return, then be careful to bury him deeper than jackals or hyenas dig. Bury him carefully by' no matter where; Vassell showed Tante Anna precisely the place.
"The woman wept and fell on her husband's neck, and cried: 'Farewell, and fight well; and God bring you and the boys back to me, Vassell, my old heart. You need have no fear but I will carefully bury the Kaffir!'
"Gentlemen!" We all sprang up at the change in the old voice. "Gentlemen you are my prisoners." The burgher rose up, very hard of face.
Deschamps drew his pistol. I thrust mine almost into the burgher's face. But he spoke firmly:
"What! Shoot your prisoner, with his commando surrounding you. Fifty Mausers are levelled on you. Pooh! No! It would be the end of you all. Lieutenant, your horses are seized. Your vedettes are prisoners. They were knocked off their saddles long ago, when you heard nothing but the horses stamping. There was a Boer among them then. He provoked that stamping. It was the signal to strike down your vedettes. Fifty burghers are listening to my voice now. Here, men!" And at the word the Boer surprise came on. "Oom Emanuel! Oh, Oom Emanuel!" was the cry.
"I truly grieve for you, gentlemen," said the old burgher ten minutes later. "You were such good listeners you had ears for nothing but my story. And because of that I leave you food for a whole day. It will be sufficient, if you march well on foot, to take you to my old friend General Pole. I beg you to give him my compliments. But he will not be in good humour to-morrow. Every one of his patrols within twenty miles has been captured to-night, unless something has gone wrong with De Wet, which is unlikely. Do not be cast down, lieutenant. You were not to blame. Your ears were not trained to the veldt. Good-bye. I invite you to visit me, lieutenant, after this war ends, at my Swartzdorp farm. Then I will tell you the rest of the diamond story."
"But that is not fair, sir," said Deschamps, whimsically. "I have interest in de story, and I want to know how she end."
"It has no end yet." The old burgher smiled broadly. "I was on my way to end it when you stopped me. I hoped to get through more easily without my burghers' aid, but I told them to follow if they saw me stopped. You missed us in searching the spruit this morning.
"I have really private business at Swartzdorp. Word was brought to me three days ago that Tante Anna dutifully buried Matakit months ago. Vassell was the Kaffir's life; I will be his resurrection. A great diamond of the first water is very salable, and the treasury of the republic is running low."
"But it may not be a diamond of the first water," said I.
"It must be," said the patriarch. "Anything less would be too shabby a mercy to Vassell."