The Face at the window
strange revenge in Mirredel
Where was Joseph’s sister and her child? Who was the mysterious stranger? Then in that frightening night the answers came. So began the
HOW CAN you leave us alone here when you know that your presence is our only protection? Stay with us,” Fletcher pleaded. Frank and I, university students on holiday, had rented a room for the night in Fletcher’s house because it was the only lodging available in the hot, dusty South African village of Mirredal. But our host’s fanatical harangue on white supremacy had already alienated us, and we had no intention of staying longer in the silent sinister house especially when Fletcher refused to tell us exactly what he dreaded.
We knew he feared two men: his brotherin-law, Ignatius Louw, and Joseph, the huge African who had come to me out of the shadows around the house and asked me to read him a stolen letter from Louw to Mrs. Fletcher, a grey nervous woman with ungainly hands. Somehow these four people were trapped together in a web of guilt and accusation. Alone in our room, Frank and I listened for sounds from the kitchen where Louw sat mocking the brother-in-law who hated him and the sister who loved him passionately.
Suddenly, from the darkness outside our window, came the'fourth person who shared their secret. “Baas,” Joseph said to me, “will you help me again?”
He waited for a reply. “I don’t know,” I said. “I need help again, baas.” “What kind of help? Are you in trouble again? Have you stolen another letter?” He withdrew his hand. He paused. Then he replied to my question. “No.” He waited. “What kind of help do you need?”
“All I want is you to tell me what you have heard in this house.”
“Will that help you?”
I said: “We’ve heard so many things in this house. We can’t tell you anything unless you tell us what it is that you want to know.” He looked at me closely, without moving, trying, I thought, to see if I were mocking him or telling him what I believed to be the truth.
“We don’t understand what we’ve heard,” Frank said. “So we can’t tell it to you. If we understood we could tell you.”
Joseph still hesitated. Then he said to me: “I hear the baas had a talk with the missus?” “Yes.”
“And this baas,” he said, lifting his hand a little, barely pointing toward Frank, “talked to Baas Fletcher?”
“Yes,” I said. “How do you know?”
“There are other people in this house,” he said briefly. It was with a kind of wonder that I remembered the spindle-legged African who had served our supper, and Frank telling me about a little bushman who had scampered away when Fletcher had stamped his foot at him.
“Baas, if you will tell me what the missus said to you I’ll be satisfied,” Joseph said. With less assurance he said of Frank: “And if this baas would tell me what Baas Fletcher said to him?” I saw his hand grip the sill. “Baas,” he said. His hand did not relax. “Baas, if you will tell me what I ask you, I’ll pay you.” He said the last words abruptly.
“What!” I said. I was shocked, almost insulted. “Do you think I’d take payment from you !”
Joseph said: “I have the money. How much would the baas want?”
“Stop talking like that!” I said. “Why, baas? I have the money,” he repeated.
“I don’t care how much money you’ve got. I’m not going to take any money from you.”
“Why not, baas?”
“Because I started angrily, and then stopped as impetuously as I’d begun. I couldn’t say to him that I wouldn’t take money from him because he was black. I was silent.
“Why not, baas?”
“You know damn well why not,” I said. “As well as I do.”
With the same almost careless honesty with which he’d admitted that the letter I’d read to him earlier had been stolen, Joseph asked me now:
“Is it because I am a Kaffir, baas?” “Yes,” I said.
“And this baas too?”
“Yes,” Frank said softly.
“Yes,” I said. “Both of us.” Then 1 thought I saw a way out. “We have more money than you.”
“You don’t know how much money I’ve got,” Joseph gently reminded me.
“No,” 1 said. There was no way out: he had exposed the tenacity and duplicity of my own feelings of white baaskap — my own “liberal” intolerances, my own assertion of where his place should be and where mine. And to my surprise I saw that for the first time in all my dealings with him, Joseph’s stiff and deliberate manner had relaxed, as he bowed his head and smiled doubtfully, bowing almost as if he were waiting for a reproof. I stared at him, failing to understand, and as I did so, from beneath his furrowed lowered forehead, he gave a glance that lingered on me for a few seconds, though he kept it concealed. And when he saw that I’d caught the glance he did not lift his head, but remained in concealment, both covert and unabashed. I saw all the grooved brown skin of his face relaxing, and his arms hang downward unclenched, unused.
“Baas,” he said softly. “Will you help me now?”
1FELT that we had at last discovered his weakness. If that is the word; if it was a weakness that he should have hungered for acceptance, for approval. And not acceptance on some special terms of his own, not acceptance on the basis of his overwhelming physical strength, not acceptance because of a guilt toward people of his color that he had somehow managed to divine in ourselves, certainly not acceptance on a simple man-to-man basis unimaginable, perhaps to him, in a country where it is the rule of life that a white man is a white man and a black man is a black man and each has his place as though given to him by God. It was none of these. This African, Joseph, who had asked my help in a scheme that he could not disclose, who had exposed himself to rebuff and far worse with the aloof air of someone granting a favor that I could not but accept, this
“Who was the father of her yellow baby? Joseph’s sister refused to tell anyone”
man hungered for us to accept him as he was to everyone else in the country —as a black man. To do that I had to be what I was to everyone else in the country—a white man, a baas.
“All right, Joseph,” I said. “Tell us your story. And then we’ll be able to see if we know anything that can help you.”
“Dankie, baas,” Joseph said. I think both he and 1 wondered why we had not been able to have immediately and with less discomfort, at our first meeting, the relationship which was now between us, straight and firm in our hands, like the heft of an axe. I know I did—and that I blamed those liberal scruples of mine, which, while preventing me then from establishing with him that trust which I believed we now shared, had also protected me from going to his former employers in a state of white and righteous indignation to inform them of what he had done. Now, 1 thought, we had the best of both worlds, and certainly the discomfort with which we listened to his story was not occasioned by any crudity of the relationship in which we found ourselves that was mellow, that was history but by the bitter content of the story itself.
He told the story too in a way that I recognized with a feeling of nostalgia: I remembered, as I listened to him on that evening, the strangeness, distance and wonder of the lives of the household servants who had told us stories when we were children as he now was telling us his story.
Four years before we had come to Mirredal, Joseph had left the service of Mrs. Fletcher. He did not go in search of adventure. Nor to better himself, for
there is no way that an illiterate African can better himself. Nor in search of a kinder master, for he did not complain about the treatment he had received from Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher, or from Louw, who was still living in the house et that time. He had simply gone on an impulse, packing his bag of things, telling the Fletchers that he wanted to leave, and taking the train to De Aar—where the railway lines that run north to south cross the line that runs westward to South-West Africa, eastward to the coast at Port Elizabeth, and where soot of engines lies crudely and strangely on the desert earth, on either side of the rows of flat and shining tracks. And in De Aar, inevitably, Joseph worked for the South African Railways, in the railway shunting yards. The work was hard, and the place hot, even to Joseph.
But he stayed there, for six months, for a year, for eighteen months. Then, at the end of his eighteen months in the shunting yards at De Aar, perhaps he thought he had seen the world and that it would be as well for him to go home now. So he came back to Mirredal.
Came back to find his sister gone. Gone as he had left suddenly, leaving no word. She was the only member of his immediate family still alive. Both of them had worked for the Fletchers. She had been working there when he had left. All the t ime lie had been away he had not heard from her, though he himself had sent one letter to her, informing her that he was working for the S.A.R. in De Aar. The letter had been formal in style and brief in content. for the scribe whom he employed to write the letter charged by the length of the let ter and would not allow any deviations from his standard pattern of phrasing.
WHERE was his sister? Where had she gone? He asked Mrs. Fletcher, for he was puzzled that she had left without informing him of this by means similar to that which he had employed. And more puzzled yet that, having left, she had not written him where she now actually was. He asked Mrs.
Fletcher, and was told abruptly that she did not know. Mrs. Fletcher said that his sister had simply announced to her, as he himself had once done, that she wished to leave. Mrs. Fletcher had accordingly let her go. Mrs. Fletcher now added, for Joseph’s benefit, several remarks about the ingratitude of the Kaffirs for past favors they had received, of their readiness to leave as soon as they thought they could better themselves, and of their disregard of the length of service they had had under one particular missus, or even under the father of the missus. Mrs. Fletcher grew shrill in references to these unpleasant and apparently congenital characteristics of the Africans, and her complaints widened to include not only their unsatisfactory behavior as servants, but also their uncleanness and immorality. Joseph listened in silence to the harangue. Then he thanked Mrs. Fletcher for receiving him and listening to his enquiries.
Joseph enquired of the household servants and was told that they too did not know where his sister had gone: she had given up her job not as the result of some unexpected impulse but because she was going to have a baby. This was something that Mrs. Fletcher had omitted from her harangue, as a particular, though no doubt the generalities about immorality had included it. Though the servants did not know where his sister had since gone, they did know that she had had the baby in Mirredal location. After some enquiry Joseph found the woman with whom his sister had lived after she had given up her work to have the baby. The woman remembered his sister without any difficulty: she remembered the baby too. It had been what she called a yellow baby. A little girl. Not an African baby, but a baby whose father had either been a white man or a colored.
Naturally Joseph asked who the father of the child was. He was told that no one knew, and that his sister had refused to divulge to anyone who the father was. And no one had come forward to claim the parenthood of the child. The woman told Joseph that she had repeatedly tried to find out who the father of the child was, and had suggested numerous names to his sister, from all sections of the community. But every name had been met with a denial. The woman had finally suggested to his sister that perhaps the father of the child had been a stranger to the village, and his sister had agreed to this: yes, the father of the child was a stranger, someone who had passed through once, nine months before. But, the woman said, she personally was quite sure that his sister had agreed to this suggestion only for the sake of peace, and that she had not merely known who the father of the child was but where he was too.
At the end of the story Joseph asked if she knew where his sister had gone. The woman did know. His sister had gone to an aunt of hers who lived in a village some forty or fifty miles away. She had left a few weeks after the child was born, taking the child with her and a bundle of her clothing and possessions. How had she gone? The woman did not know. All she knew was that his sister had left one midday, taking a lift into Mirredal village with a man who had a donkey cart. The woman did not know how his sister had proceeded farther. And the man with the donkey cart? He came from yet another village, some fifty miles away, and had happened to be passing through on the day his sister left.
Joseph left the woman at that point. He now at least had a destination, an address toward which he could work. He wanted to find out what had happened to his sister and her child, and what had happened before the birth of the child. He wanted to know who the father of the child was—not that he had any idea of revenging a wrong, forcing a reluctant male to acknowledge his guilt and responsibility—nothing like that. But he wanted to know, all the same. Just as he wanted to know how his sister was managing. So he walked to the village in which his aunt lived. He walked forty miles across the bare veld in two days, sleeping at night in the huts of farm Africans whom he passed on his way, and on the end of the second day came to the farm on which his aunt lived, where she worked for a white man.
He asked his aunt, if his sister were there. No, she said. His sister had been there. But she had taken the train, saying that she; was going to Cape Town. Had she taken the child with her? Joseph asked.
What child? the aunt asked.
Joseph replied casually that he had heard in Mirredal that his sister was looking after a child, an orphan from the farm where she’d been working, but apparently there had been some mistake and the story wasn’t true. Though his aunt persisted in asking questions about this child, Joseph headed them off, or ignored them, until the subject was dropped. Then he spent another two days walking back to Mirredal.
He went to the woman with whom his sister had stayed. All those stories, he asked, had they been true? Had his sister taken her child, saying that they were going to her aunt? Yes, the woman replied. Had she seen his sister leaving with the child? Yes, the woman replied. She had seen his sister and her child getting on the stranger’s donkey cart and riding off to Mirredal village. What was the stranger’s village? The woman did not know, hut she gave Joseph the name of someone in the location who was the stranger’s cousin.
The man whose name had been given to Joseph knew where the man with the donkey cart had come from. He gave Joseph the name of the man and the village where he lived. He had come to Mirredal, the cousin said, over the matter of some goats which he claimed were owing to him.
It took Joseph three days to walk to the village of the stranger who had given Joseph’s sister the lift into Mirredal village. When he found the man, he found too that the man remembered clearly that he had given a lift into Mirredal village to a woman with a small child. Had they gone farther with him? Joseph asked. No, the man said. He had dropped them opposite the Mirredal Hotel, near the veranda of the Mirredal General Trading Stores, where the woman had said she had some things to buy. He hadn’t seen her again because he had left immediately: he had had a long way to come home. Yes, Joseph said, he knew that the man had had a long way to come.
Three days’ walking took Joseph back to Mirredal. He was certain now in his own mind only that his sister had left the location with her child and reappeared on the aunt’s farm, forty miles away, without the child. Could she have left the child with some other woman?
AP THE?end of a week’s guarded and hesitant inquiry, Joseph had established that all the children of the age his sister’s child would have been could be accounted for. Every last bastard and orphan could be accounted for, and his sister’s child wasn’t among them. He spent another month walking to every farm in the district on which lived any African woman whom he knew his sister to have known, in the
hope that she had perhaps made a detour on her way to her aunt and left the child with friends.
He appeared always as someone making his way to a further destination, and always he asked if the people he met had seen his sister lately. He said nothing about a child, about her visit to his aunt, nothing at all about her except that he wasn’t sure where she was, and that someone in the location had said that he had heard that she was going to visit this farm or that farm, another farm, the fourth, fifth, sixth farm, until he had been to just about every farm in the district and found that none of the people on any of them knew anything at all about his sister.
None of them had any exciting stories to tell either, stories about how a child had been found on the roadside, here or there, by this person or that, about how a strange child was growing up on yet another farm in the district: they had no stories, even when Joseph fed them with a story of his own manufacture about how he had heard of a child being found on the roadside near De Aar, when he had been working
there, and the way the child was being brought up by the people who had found it. None of them could bring forth a corresponding, recent story. And Joseph knew that no one in Mirredal had such a story: if there had been one he would surely have heard it from the busy lips of the woman with whom his sister had stayed while she was having her baby.
So he returned to Mirredal as he had done twice before in his search, before all the days and nights of tramping on the bare veld, knowing only what he had known before: that his sister had left Mirredal location with the child and arrived at his aunt’s without it. He walked to his aunt’s place again, simply to make sure that it was Cape Town to which his sister had gone. Did his aunt in fact know that his sister had bought the ticket to Cape Town and not to some other destination along the line, or simply to the nearest junction where the local rail joined the line that went not only to Cape Town but also northward to Johannesburg? He received no satisfaction in his queries. His aunt did not know: to her the departure of a train, bearing someone she knew upon it, was in itself so great an action that it swallowed up any consequences or destinations the action might have had for the protagonist.
Joseph did not now know what to do. Already he was afraid that his presence and the inquiries he had made, for so long now, in Mirredal and the district around it, might be causing too much wonder and might begin to cause suspicion. He was particularly afraid of the woman with whom his sister had lived in Mirredal location. And there was another reason why he could not go on as he had been able to hitherto: he
had no money. He would have to find work.
He used almost the last money he had walking back to Mirredal from his aunt’s house, and as he walked he did something on the way that made the journey take not the two days it had when he had first walked the distance, but more than a week. A week of walking and digging. Whenever he saw on the side of the road a piece of earth that looked as if it had "been disturbed not too long before, he dug into it with a stick that he carried, digging in as deep as the earth had been disturbed. Whenever there was a clump of thornbushes, with younger bushes growing closely around it to form a barrier round a circle of earth, he went into it, and looked carefully within it to see if the ground had been lifted. He could not cover the whole wide country, but he could cover the road his sister must have taken on her journey to her aunt, and he did so, as he moved slowly back to Mirredal. All the weaker wood had splintered away from the stick in his hand, and the harder was smooth and shone, as though it had been polished, by the time he reached Mirredal. His digging had been of as little avail as his walking. He had found nothing.
So, though he could search no longer, his search was not yet over, and as a last desperate effort he returned to the house of the Fletchers. He wanted to speak to the person he referred to throughout as Baas Nasie. As he walked to the house he did not know what he would tell Baas Nasie or how much he would tell him, but he did know that silence and space and his own illiteracy and ignorance had defeated him.
HE! HAD now, he thought, to ask the help of a white man. A man who could read. A man who had a motorcar. A man who called policemen by their first names. A man who could write letters, send telegrams, put through phone calls, a man who had been trained for the world which his fathers had built, which he himself was expected to continue to build in his turn, and in which Joseph was an illiterate and poverty-stricken servant for whom the police and all the mechanisms of the ordering of society held only danger—even when all was well and his conscience clear, and of whose workings he could think now only with horror when he did not know where his sister was or what she had done with her child.
Among all the white men he knew he had chosen Baas Nasie to help him because, when Baas Nasie had been a child, it had been Joseph who had told him stories, played with him, hunted hares and meerkats with him. It was only when he was already sitting in the kitchen of the house, waiting for Baas Nasie to come to him, that he decided what the requests that he would make of Baas Nasie would be. He would simply ask Baas Nasie if he could help him in the task of finding his sister, who, he would say, had gone to Cape Town without leaving a word. Perhaps Baas Nasie would be able to suggest a way: those in authority had means of power and recall which Joseph had before seen easily produce results which he could regard only as little short of miraculous. And he knew that Baas Nasie would understand his shyness in calling in the help of the police—assuming the police would be at all interested in helping to trace the whereabouts of a single African woman among so many millions, when there was nothing against her which would interest them at all. But Baas Nasie would not question what Joseph felt about the police: what white man didn’t know how the Africans felt about the police? Perhaps, Joseph thought, Baas Nasie would write a letter for him to the officers of the Department of Native Affairs, in Cape Town, asking them if the record of his sister’s entry into any of Cape Town’s locations had been registered in their books. Joseph did not like the idea of an approach to the Department of Native Affairs, but they were better than the police. Perhaps Baas Nasie would suggest a notice in the newspaper which might catch the eye of someone who knew, or employed, his sister. Surely Baas Nasie, a young man, in the authority and light denied to Joseph, would know what to do.
Baas Nasie, however, did not come into the room. The servant brought Baas Nasie’s sister, Mrs. Fletcher, and Joseph saw immediately that she was not pleased to see him and resented his presence in the kitchen. She told him that Baas Nasie was not in the house, speaking with a great abruptness, which Joseph assumed to have stemmed from her previous anger over his leaving her service and the subsequent departure of his sister. But as deferentially as he had greeted her, Joseph asked where Baas Nasie was, as he wished to see the baas. Baas Nasie, he was told, no longer lived in the house. Joseph asked where he was. Mrs. Fletcher replied that he had gone, gone, far away, too far for Joseph to be able to find him. Joseph asked when he would be coming back. He would not be coming back, Mrs. Fletcher replied.
Joseph said that he was sorry to hear this as he had hoped he would be able to speak to Baas Nasie. There was no reply. After a pause in which they had both stood in silence in the kitchen, with the two new strange servants looking on, Joseph said that he hoped there was nothing wrong that had made Baas Nasie go away. It was a remark made in innocence, for he knew that Baas Nasie had planned to stay in the house, and he knew too how much Mrs. Fletcher loved her brother and how little she had wanted him to leave, even when he had left for college. And by the word “wrong” he had meant no more than an occurrence beyond the control of Baas Nasie, no more than an undesired change of plan. But whatever he had meant, Mrs. Fletcher shouted loudly at him: “What makes you say that?”
Joseph was surprised at this reaction, but he stood his ground firmly. He explained that he had meant nothing, that he knew nothing, that the last thing he had had in mind was to accuse Baas Nasie of having committed a misdeed. He made his position clear, expecting Mrs. Fletcher to chase him away before he had done. But to his surprise she became calmer while he talked to her. Though she stood as stiffly upright and hostile as she had done before, she did not shout at him and seemed to listen with care. And when he had finished, she asked him—almost as if she herself might be able to take the place of her brother—why he was looking for Baas Nasie.
Joseph told her that he had thought that Baas Nasie might be able to help him find his sister. And again she screamed at him. “What makes you say that?” were her first words, and then as Joseph listened to the words of abuse of himself which poured from her lips, interspersed with commands never to come near the house again and invective against his sister, and as he watched the expressions of rage and
“Her face twisted with fear and Joseph knew the answer to his sister’s secret”
fear which twisted her features, Joseph knew, knew without hesitation or anger, that he had at least found out who the father of his sister’s child was.
SO FAR Joseph’s minor-keyed African voice, with that hoarse and plaintive scrape at the back of the throat, was the same as those to which I had so often listened before, telling me stories which had in common with this one only those elements of heat, distance, and the difficulties of poverty and ignorance—the earth of the country on which we had built our houses and roads. And one other thing which I recognized too, and which I responded to with as much respect as I had as a child: a profound family feeling, an acceptance of involvement in the lives of those to whom he was related by blood.
Perhaps I can most clearly indicate the nature and tenacity of this feeling in Joseph by mentioning that not once during his telling of the story did Joseph refer to his sister as anything but “my sister.” Other names he gave us: the name of his aunt, for instance, was Sarah, and the name of the man who owned the donkey cart, Klaas. But his sister was nameless, defined by one attribute only, the condition for her being mentioned in the story: she was his sister. In the same way, he never referred to his sister’s child by any other appelation but that of “my sister’s child.” It would have been formal and self-consciously hierarchic if he had spoken in this way with any self-consciousness, but there was not a trace of it in his voice or manner. The way he referred to them was simply what they were: “my sister” and “my sister’s child”—his, and his responsibility.
After his moment of illumination with Mrs. Fletcher he retired to Mirredal location to think matters over. He knew who the father of his sister’s child was; he did not know what had happened to the child or where his sister was. She and the child had disappeared; and it was at that point that Joseph decided that so far as he was concerned his sister was dead. Dead to him. Gone away. Swallowed up by Cape Town or Johannesburg or Port Elizabeth or Durban as surely as by the earth itself. All her actions showed that she had no intention of coming back. He reproached her for her death as little as he mourned for her. He accepted it. She was gone.
But this certainty of knowledge of her final departure from him did not end his search. It settled one matter. It left the other insisting as urgently for settlement as the one had done. He knew who the father of the child was, and he knew that his sister would not come back, but he did not know what had happened to the child. What he did know was that Mrs. Fletcher knew what had happened. And if Mrs. Fletcher then almost certainly Mr. Fletcher too. It would be the Fletchers who would tell him what he wanted to know.
He had no redress in the matter, no proof, no status, no one to whom to appeal. More than that, he had a great fear of perhaps bringing a trouble on his sister; and he knew that, dead though she might be to him, if the police wanted her for enquiry they would almost certainly be able to find her and bring her back to life; he knew' certainly that under such circumstances his sister would not thank him. And he did not in the least want to bring any trouble to her.
Surprisingly, he left Mirredal then. The reason was that he knew that he would not be able to get work in the village which would pay sufficiently well for him to be able to save money. The high wages he knew were being paid in the towns. So he went to Johannesburg and worked for a builder there, earning almost eight pounds a month—a wage for an African unknown in Mirredal. He managed to save a pound or two every month. He did not know what he would do when he returned to Mirredal, but whatever it might be, he wanted to have money to be able to do it. Two years’ work brought him savings, in all, of some thirty pounds. With that reserve of cash in hand he returned to Mirredal.
As a first step, and with very little hope, he went to the Fletchers and asked them to give him work, as Mrs. Fletcher had told me he had done, in her garbled version of the events. As he had expected, they drove him away, so he got a job in the village. And he waited. He watched, taking up his jxisition outside the house in the evenings, over the week ends, at night sometimes. Out of his savings he suborned the servants of the house to tell him everything they overheard in the house and to purloin any letters they could lay their hands upon. Until, after months of waiting, we had come, and Baas Nasie, together, and Joseph knew that he had to risk asking for our aid. He had to have some proof with which he could confront the Fletchers, so that he could force them to tell him what had been done to the child.
I asked him how he thought he would be able to force this from them, and he did not answer. I don’t think he knew, that evening. 1 asked him why he had asked the Fletchers for work when he had come to Mirredal, and again he did not answer. I would not say that Joseph had at any time lost sight of the purpose of his search, but it did seem to me that his insistence on being near the house, if possible in the house, was the expression of a desire that was bounded on one side by the whereabouts of his sister’s child, but on the other only by the very frame of his imagination, the world in which he had grown up.
That was as it might be. In the meantime Joseph did have particular proofs to establish. He ended his story as he had begun it, with a request: “Will you tell me what you have heard from the people in this house ?
YOU’RE a lunatic! Don’t do that!
Don’t do that!” The shouting of these words was followed by a tremendous thump within the house that made the floor boards shiver beneath our feet. Then a door slammed, and we heard a rushing of footsteps. More doors were slammed and the footsteps came rapidly down the nearest passage. Our door burst open, and Fletcher stood within it. He stared wildly about the room before closing the door behind him and leaning against it. His hand groped beneath the doorknob. “The key,” he shouted. “Where’s the key?”
Deeper in the house we heard a door being slammed, and then Louw s voice. He was shouting in Afrikaans, “Once and for all ...” “This time is the last time ...” “The end of the story ...” And each disconnected phrase was followed by a crash. Again and again the floor boards under our feet shook, until after each shiver there was a faint sigh that seemed to come from the heart of the house itself.
Fletcher turned around and looked at us for a moment. “Lean against the door,” lie commanded, before he swung his face toward the door again, as if the danger lay in his not watching it. It was only then that 1 remembered Joseph and turned toward the window. But the window was open and empty to the still night outside; we might have dreamed the big dark man standing there, dreamed his voice .and his hands on the sill. I remember feeling relieved to see that he had fled, as I presumed ho had: there was more than enough to deal with fit, the moment without Joseph being there too.
Within the house the sounds of rampage grew louder and came more quickly. There was barely time now to sort out one sound from another, and the floor quivered continually. All we knew was that things were being ripped from walls, hurled down passages, ground into splinters on the floor, torn open with a cry of cloth. Something skidded and hit an outside window with a crash and a patter of glass on the stoep outside: with a characteristic dry gasp, a light bulb exploded.
Then there was a roar that bewildered me until Fletcher shouted: “He’s in the library!” Again there came the roar of sound, and I realized that he was overturning the bookcases and the books were cascading in cataracts upon the floor. Something beat a rapid tattoo on the wood, until the wood splintered and cracked apart with a sharp report, like a pistol shot. “’The desk,” Fletcher moaned, “it’s an antique.” A door slammed and footsteps retreated down t he passage. Again there' was the splintering of wood and then pots rang, stricken metal, against one another, and cups and plates and glasses burst furiously against the wall and fell with a clatter of china on the floor. There were loud and clumsy creaking noises. “He's got the dresser,” Fletcher said to us. “He’ll break that too!” Within seconds the dresser
hit the ground with a great resonant boom. “What next? What next?”
Next there were a few more desultory sounds as the man roamed around the farther wing of the house, apparently destroying whatever he could without the expenditure of too much energy. Then he started coming nearer again; we could hear him tearing down the buck horns on the walls in the front passage and then in the passage that led to our room. He came still closer. He went into the room next to ours and started banging away inside it with great vigor. The window of the room went as the others had done, with a crystal tinkling of the glass on the stoep outside, and the marble washstand broke heavily, almost like wood. “Once and for all,” Louw was still saying. “No more of this . . . I’ve had enough.” His voice did not sound wild or enraged: he grunted the sentences out, almost with the sound of someone on a difficult and tiring job. “Finish it off!” Louw was saying. “Enough is enough !”
Fletcher had by this time left the door and was now standing between Frank and myself, near the window, where we had taken up our position, ready to flee through the window should the man come into the room with a club in his hand. Fletcher held one of my hands in his; perhaps he was doing the same to Frank on the other side, hut I could not see. Fie said: “He said he was going to kill me. That’s when I ran.”
“And Mrs. Fletcher?” I asked.
Fletcher looked at me in surprise. “He won’t do anything to her.”
OUR door handle rattled, and Fletcher lost all thought of others. “It’s me he’s after,” he said, tightening his grasp and staring at the door with his eyes wdde open. Though the door was not locked Louw was having a
little trouble opening it, so, despite the fact that it would hardly help him with the lock, with a single crack he kicked open one of the lower panels in the door. Then he tried the handle again, and after all the noise he had been making the silence in which he opened the door was positively eerie.
He looked much as he had done when I had last seen him, though now his face was darker and his tight black hair a little disarranged, with one wavy lock lying over his clean, rounded brow. His shoulders rose and fell, but when, after a moment’s silence, he had recovered his breath, he guffawed loudly at the three of us.
He laughed uproariously and experimentally, watching us closely. Louw was clearly not as drunk as he was pretending to be. His face was darkened and he swayed a little on his wide-planted legs, hut there was nothing befuddled about, his eyes and the way he used his eyes to watch us. When he looked at Fletcher he said nothing; he smiled without opening his lips.
“You should see the place,” he said. “I’ve smashed it. up. You can have a look if you like,” he invited us tentatively and gestured with his hand behind him.
But none of us moved, and Frank said patiently: “Don’t smash anything here. We want to sleep here tonight.”
Louw hesitated. 'Then he said mildly: “I’ve got nothing against you.”
“Good,” Frank said. “We don’t •want to get our stuff mucked up.” He spoke very casually: it seemed to be the right tone to adopt, for Louw listened without taking offense. Then Frank stepped hack and Fletcher took him by the wrist. This was seen by Louw.
“Don’t hold his hand,” he told us. “You’ll get dirty if you do. And you!” he said to Fletcher. “Holding hands like a girl. I’ll kill you if I want to, and if 1 don’t I won’t. There’s no help for you in holding anyone’s hand. I’m just making up my mind now.”
This was so obviously a joke, of sorts, that even Fletcher was able to take courage and say: “You won’t get away with this.” Louw lifted a lip in reply: it was enough to make Fletcher quiver violently.
Then we heard footsteps coming down the passage. Louw leaned back and put his head through the door. “Here comes Chrissie,” he announced.
“Come to inspect the damage.”
Mrs. Fletcher came into the room looking unchanged, as though there had been no flight, no argument, no destruction since we’d seen her last. “I heard what you were doing,” she said to her brother. “And then it got quiet.” She looked around the room, apparently checking that everyone who should have been there was present. “I was wondering what you were doing. It got quiet so suddenly.”
“Nothing,” Louw said. “We were talking. Just a friendly conversation between me and your husband.”
Mrs. Fletcher said reprovingly to her brother: “You’ve broken everything.”
“Not everything,” Louw replied modestly. “Only the things I could get my hands on. I forgot the bathroom.”
“You can’t stay here now,” Fletcher shouted unexpectedly. “I’ve got the right to call the police and set them on you.”
“Call the police! Do you think I want to stay here?” Louw clapped his hands suddenly. “You know,” he said, “once I’d decided to go, I was happy. Then I could smash everything. It was marvelous.” And though he was taunting Fletcher, and, I thought, his sister too, there was no doubt in my mind that he was speaking the truth. He had enjoyed what he had done: the plump, neat, candid-faced young man carried with him a devil of destruction. And it hardly mattered to him that what the devil destroyed might have been his own. He stepped behind his sister and suddenly gave her a push with his hand in the small of her back, so that she almost fell forward on top of us. I caught her in my arms, but she pulled away. She had her arms around his neck and her face thrust close to his own.
“I’m glad you’re going,” she said. “You’ll be safe. And, Nasie, I’ll come with you.”
Louw swayed his thick shoulders from side to side, and his sister’s body moved with the swaying as she clung to him. “I’ll he safe,” he said, squinting down at her, his chin tucked in and his eyelids lowered to see her in a kind of hellishly merry wink. He stopped swaying and reached up behind his neck and took his sister’s fingers in his own. Her grip tightened, hut despite her strength he managed to lever her hands away.
“Take you with me?” He simply shouted his scorn, his head thrown back, his eyes closed like the eyes of a newborn child. “Aaach!” There were no words in what he shouted. It was a sound, a yell of derision.
He had to stop to take a breath, and when he did so he marched upon Fletcher. “Take him!” he shouted. “Stay with him! How can you think of leaving him? You’ve got to have some kindness for a thief like him.” He punched Fletcher on the chest; he did not care if the blow had hurt the man or not—his contempt was too great; no sooner was it done than he turned to his sister, not seeing Fletcher reel hack from the blow. “And what would I do with you?” He brought his next words with care: “Expiate my sin?” He
shouted at her again, like a man possessed by a guttersnipe demon: “Aaach !”
Fletcher turned to me, protesting and gesticulating: “He’s always been like this. He’s always made mock of me. He was always saying that I’d married for the sake of the money and the house and the rest of it. I’d married for money! What had he done to throw that in my face? Six months in jail people get for doing what he did — there’s a law against having anything to do with a Kaffir woman, and he knew it. And the disgrace of it! I had him like this,” F’letcher said, clenching his fist. “Wasn’t I right to drive him away? Wouldn’t, you have jumped at the chance to make him go? It was the best day of my life,” he said passionately. “I’d do it again if I ever could.” He was so carried away that he had not noticed that Louw was leaning forward and had listened to his last words.
“And this has been the best day of mine,” he shouted. “I’d do it again if I could.” He shouted at his sister: “You talk about the family. Where is the family? You’ve got no children. He couldn’t even make one.” He jabbed at Fletcher. “Or you,” he said to his sister, “were you too old already?” He waited, though no reply could come to a question as cruel as that. “And me?” he asked. “What did we do when I made one? Did we want it? It would have been yellow. Did you hear that? Yellow. The little one, yellow and wrinkled like a stone. Did we want it? Didn’t you say the mother mustn’t know where the child is, and the child mustn’t know where the mother is, or who the mother is, so that they could never come together again? Weren’t those your words? And didn’t he come with his lump sum for this one and his Jump sum for the other one and the lump sum for the ones who came in the motorcar? .So don’t come and talk to me about family. If you want a family, go and look for it.”
Mrs. Fletcher moved away from 1 er brother and stood in the middle of the room, alone. “I wish,” she exclaimed in a sudden, frantic prayer, clasping her hands and lifting them high up where they shook, so tightly were they clasped, until her whole torso shook too, “I wish this whole house would fall down. So that there would he nothing left.”
And suddenly her brother was quiet. “It will.” he said. “It’s our choice.” He turned to Frank and me, and his body rose silently with a laugh that made no sound and then sank again. “I’ve done my hit,” he said. “I did what 1 could.” He asked his sister: “You know what I feel like?” She stared at him without speaking. “I feel as though I’ve just been with a woman.” He leaned to her. “When I was with her. That’s what I feel like.”
He was able only to breathe out for a moment, having said what he had to his sister. He nodded, though, confirming what he had just said. “And wanting her!” he said. “I’ve never wanted anything the way I wanted her. It was sad inside me, wanting her. Sometimes I’d stand next to her and I’d be afraid that if I moved I’d fall down in a heap that was what it was like. And then one night 1 vVas drunk. Like tonight. And afterward I felt as I feel now. That I’ve done something.” He had been speaking quietly; when he lifted one clenched fist, and struck it with all his force against the palm of the other hand, the sound was single, sharp, and, in its abruptness, pained, in the otherwise silent room. “Afterward,” Louw said, “after the times I’d been with her ”
“Stop! Stop talking, Nasie!” Mrs. Fletcher shouted, the words choking themselves in her throat. I thought it was because she could no longer bear the recital of her brother’s fall into what they all regarded even he himself helplessly and finally as shame. But if, was not for that that she had called him to stop. She had just seen Joseph at t he window.
IOIJW was the first to move. He j noved to the door, and only when he was there did he say to Joseph, without surprise—he was beyond surprise and almost without fear, “You can do nothing with me. I’m going. I’m finished with this place.” And he turned and fled. We heard his footsteps through the house, running, and then we heard them beating down the garden path. Joseph could have headed him off quite easily, I think, but he made no effort to do so; he stood at the window without moving. Louw’s footsteps clattered on the path and then were dulled suddenly on sand. We heard them sharply again among the stones on the riverbed, and only when he reached the other side of the river did they disappear from our hearing. That was the last we heard of him: the silence and the darkness of the veld shut him finally from us then.
And when the last sounds had faded Fletcher asked Joseph: “How long
have you been there?”
“All the time,” Joseph replied. “Since you came in the room.”
“And what did you hear?” “Everything.”
Fletcher bit his lip caressingly, letting his lower lip slide forward between his teeth, reflectively. But he was a man of resources: out of his shaggy, shiny, bewildered head, even then, he produced a reply. “Prove it,” he said. His eye measured the distance between himself and the door.
“Well?” Fletcher said. He cocked his head to one side. Joseph remained silent. “What have you got to say for yourself?” Fletcher waited again. “Nothing?” Joseph still did not speak. “You thought you were clever sneaking around outside and listening to what the white basies had to say. And now you tell me that you heard everything they said. Well, tell me what they said and then prove it. And to anyone else you want to tell your stories to.”
When Joseph raised a hand, Fletcher stepped back a pace hastily and said: “No, you don’t. You wouldn’t dare start anything here. We’re too many for you.”
Joseph’s hand fell back. “Thought better of it, have you?” Fletcher snapped. “Now listen, Joseph, you’ve been getting cheeky. You’ve been forgetting your place. You’re old enough, Joseph, to know that you can’t do that. And
“Did I want to have my throat cut by a Kaffir in the night? It would happen to every white if we didn’t stick together”
you’re old enough to know what happens to Kaffirs like yourself who try. They get punished, Joseph. I’m not alone. I’ve got all these people here, and the police are just at the end of the telephone wire. They’ll come quickly enough when I tell them that I’ve caught a trespassing Kaffir. So? Hey? What have you got to say for yourself? Still nothing?”
Joseph did not stir.
“I’m giving you your last chance, Joseph. You tell me now that you’re never coming back to worry me, or I’m phoning the police. They’ll settle your problem once and for all. Trespassing, burglary, those are the charges I’ll lay against you snooping around the house at all hours, trying to get in through the windows. And don’t think that you’ll be able to tell the police some cock-and-bull story about the things you heard while you were lying outside the window. Who’ll believe your stories? Answer me that.”
Joseph said: “They will believe what I say. I have witnesses.” And he pointed at Frank and myself.
I SHALL pass in comparative briefness over what happened the rest of that night, though several hours were to elapse between Joseph’s appearance at the window and the time when I finally managed to fall asleep. My own memory of those hours is patchy, blurred, distracted: I remember periods of confusion and activity — Fletcher talking, Fletcher pacing up and down the room, Fletcher gesticulating to himself in a corner, Fletcher biting his lip in the soft caressing way he had under strain. And the yellow light fidgeting about the room as the antiquated machinery outside beat in spasms, slapping away at the silence of the black veld around us.
And Fletcher talking. Fletcher hung over the foot of my bed, his arms dangling over the high metal bedstead, his shoulders hanging, his hair dangling, his head drooping: he looked as if he had been made of an elastic substance that had been held above the foot of my bed and allowed to sag downward of its own weight as far as it could. Then I remember the same man hanging at the foot of Frank’s bed and talking to him as he had talked to me.
He tried everything he had. He talked until he was bodily exhausted, with the words coming out more and more slowly and his movement being made more and more heavily, and his voice growing more and more hoarse until it finally ground itself into silence. He caressed us and flattered us. He threatened and swore. He wheedled and complained. He defended himself; he accused us. He declared that nothing made any difference, that he was an old man now and would be glad when he was dead. He orated at us. And he appealed not only to us as we were but to the “better natures” within us that he was sure were struggling to find expression.
He described those better natures at some length, and told us what a disaster it would be if we failed them. It would be a disaster for us, as people, and it would be a disaster too for white civilization in South Africa. On us, in Fletcher’s mind, there seemed to depend the future of that white civilization. Western civilization, all that was noble in our heritage. Phrases like that come easily in South Africa every trashy politician talks about white civilization, Western civilization, the fortress against barbarianism, quite casu-
ally, as if everyone in his audience will know without any difficulty what he is talking about. Fletcher did the same. Wasn’t he a white man, he asked us. Weren’t we white men, he asked us. Shouldn’t the white men stick together? Weren’t we proud that we were white men? Did we know, he asked us, what the Kaffirs were like? He asked me if I wanted to have my throat cut by a Kaffir in the middle of the night. It would happen to me, it would happen to Frank, it would happen to every white man in the country, if we didn’t all stick together. And then, he asked, where would white civilization be?
Sometimes his mind seemed to run on midnight oaths of loyalty on Bibles, at others to courts of justice in which we would appear to throw his enemies into confusion and all South Africawhite South Africa—at our feet. A little later, he would be speaking as though the house we were in was a besieged blockhouse where each man’s duty was at the loophole above the body of the fallen comrade. Often enough the fallen comrade was himself
piteously he described himself as an old, sick man who had given his life in the service of right and justice and white civilization.
He said he would break our necks. He wasn’t afraid of us, younger than he though we might be. He would take us on one by one—if we were sportsmen, be said, we would come only one by one and he would clean us up once and for all. He jerked his head, he marched about the room with a high kicking step, he threw our things together towels, shirts, books, being flung through the air and landing in some sort of heap on the floor. “1 f you make your friends with that Joseph there’s no room for you in this house. Come on, out! Quick march! Double time! Both of you, all of you, out! Co to your black friend Joseph. Out! Out!” He kicked the billy cans and sent them flying to clatter against the wall. He went to the window and shook his fist at the night. “Why doesn’t it rain?” he cried. “If it was raining you’d know what it was like to spend a night in the open.”
Frank quietly began packing our things in a more orderly way, and Fletcher watched him. “It’s a warm night,” he said. “That’s why you’re so cheeky. If it was raining you’d sing a different tune.” Frank went on packing quietly, so instead it was Fletcher who sang a different tune. “Hey?” he said. “You didn’t think I was serious, did you? I wouldn’t put you two boys out in the middle of the night. I don’t do that sort of thing to my friends.” Frank stopped packing, so Fletcher said, “Of course, I knew that you boys would help me out.”
“What did you do with the child?” Frank asked.
Fletcher took him by the throat “Don’t you ask me that sort of question. Let the Kaffir ask those questions.” He twisted Frank’s shirt just below the collar, pulling the collar tight. Frank pulled away and the collar tore. Fletcher gave a cry and let go immediately. He had plenty of khaki shirts, he told Frank, and he’d be glad to replace the one that had just been torn. He offered Frank a shirt, and sherry and whisky to both of us, and the use of his car for our holiday. He offered us some of his gold-mining shares. He said he was leaving Mirredal that night and going to England. He still had people, he said, in Stockton.
He was pitiable, but I was desperately fatigued and sleepy, and as the night dragged on the man’s antics and words became duller and duller to my sight and hearing. I cannot say that the idea of sticking by him was unthinkable, because it did occur to me once that we might say we would—not remotely meaning it, but simply in order to get him out of the room and to give us a few hours of the sleep we needed so much. And one look at him disabused me of the idea, promptly. I could never have done it. I hadn’t the heart to deceive him: he was too near the end of his tether. He was boring and foolish and fantastic, but it would have been cruelly unfair to him, in the state he was in, to deceive him.
At no time in all his talking did he get any closer to clarifying the nebulous concept of “sticking by him”; and it did occur to me then, and has often occurred to me since, that perhaps Fletcher was asking in his wild way for nothing but moral respect. If he had done nothing wrong, criminally wrong I mean, in the affair with Louw’s child, then the only explanation of his behavior that night is that he was a man who felt himself to be utterly alone and unsupported. Nothing but moral respect I have said, but what greater need could Fletcher have had? He was abandoned; he had been cast aside by everyone; even his wife had wanted to leave him and offered him now no support at all in his anguish. He had been jeered at and cursed and a Kaffir had worsted him; no one had come to his defense, attempted to deflect the accusations and insults that had been flung at him, no one had shown any pity for him.
He was alone, in a monstrous loneliness that was great enough to warrant threats and promises and flattery and appeals to white civilization to the two young men who were in his house but implicated in none of the other miserable relationships with which he was surrounded. So he bludgeoned and bludgeoned away at us. If we gave him friendship, then he had a friend. If we feared him then he was still powerful enough to make someone fear him. If we were moved by his appeals to our white skin, then he, like ourselves, would have a status among people.
MRS. FLETCHER did not stay in our room as long as her husband did, though she was there for a good part of his harangue. She sat, for the most part, in a chair in the corner of the room, with her head held straight and her hands in her lap,.her feet crossed beneath her. She kept her gaze on the wall before her; she did not seem to hear the commotion that her husband was making. But it was in one of his rare silences that she spoke for the first time since Joseph had left us. While Fletcher paced about the room gesticulating fiercely and silently, Mrs. Fletcher rose to her feet and walked to the window. She stretched her arms squarely in front of her body through the vacant frame, leaning out, as the light itself leaned into the darkness. The light lay for only a few feet beyond the reach of her arms, but she threw her voice beyond it, over the stoep into the decaying and dried garden in the sand.
“Nasie,” she called. “Why have you left me here? Come back for me. Nasie.”
But from outside there came no reply. The air was as relaxed as it always is on a summer night in the Karroo, unruffled, undisturbed, without limit above the unpeopled earth. Mrs. Fletcher waited with her arms stretched out before her. She wavered as her arms moved up and down a little in the strain of keeping them up; eventually she was forced to drop her arms. There was ignominy in this last defeat.
Ignominy and horror. We had seen much that was lonely and violent and pitiable in that evening, but I remember only one thing with horror. That is what we saw when Mrs. Fletcher turned to face the room again: we had already seen her calmness go, her expression distorted, her silence broken, but it was only then, at the very last, that we saw her eyes crack. Those narrow ovals of light blue that had always been transparent and expressionless were suddenly flawed, split in two, while we watched: her eyes shivered and glittered, they shone like an animal’s when it is caught in the veld by a beam of light and stands dazzled, shining, and helpless, before the approach of its enemies. Mrs. Fletcher’s eyes quivered blindly in the light for a moment, until the first shivering, reluctant tear fell from them, leaving her eyes blue again, until the next tear broke them. Then she wept without sound, without wrinkling her features for concealment from our sight, without wiping the tears away that were still leaving her eyes and running down her sun-withered cheeks when she walked out of the room, moving upright, with her hands hanging stiffly and shyly away from her body.
IT IS not perhaps surprising that we overslept the next morning, though I know I was shocked to see, on awakening, the sunlight splashing itself lavishly against the wall opposite my bed. But we had been up late the previous night—and not only through the efforts of Mr. Fletcher. For even after he, in exhaustion, had at last fallen in silence into the armchair which his wife had vacated, and after Frank had approached him and stirred him awake and suggested he leave, which he had totteringly done, without a word -even then we had not fallen asleep. Alone in the room at last, we had had a long discussion about what we should do next in the affair.
What emerged most clearly from the discussion was a determination to give Joseph every help that he might need. This was something that each of us had resolved upon independently: we were willing now to stay on in Mirredal for as long as Joseph might want us to. We were children no longer; and we could not merely listen to his story of hardship and bewilderment.
I suggested at first to Frank that we should, in the morning, go immediately to the police at Mirredal, inform them of what we had heard and insist that they thrash the affair out as thoroughly as they knew how. But Frank pointed out that Joseph feared that his sister might be involved — criminally involved— in the disappearance of her child, and, that being so, he would scarcely at the present stage wish to go to the police in the matter. I suggested then that we should consult a lawyer, but again Frank vetoed the idea, on the same grounds as the first. His plan—which was the one we agreed on, after casting around without success for an alternate possible action— was that, together with Joseph, we should confront Fletcher and bully or blackmail him into telling us what he had done with the child.
If the child had been got out of the way by some underhand but not necessarily vicious means, and if Joseph wanted to recover her, then we would help him to the best of our abilities. If the facts of the matter were uglier, or if we got nothing at all from Fletcher, we would consult with Joseph on what we should then do next. But whatever happened, we were determined not to let go. It would be an injustice to say that we were flushed with righteousness, but we were determined to do our
best to see that Joseph got what he was looking for.
And I must say too that we looked forward to Joseph’s gratitude. He had called upon us as his witnesses, and then had left almost immediately, before any of us could recover from the surprise that his remark had caused. In the solitude of our room, after Fletcher had left, we decided that Joseph had left when he did because, though he had called upon us, he had not done so with any belief that we would in fact help him. It had been a way of silencing Fletcher, for him-—no
more—and he had left in the silence of what he had said, before he could be disowned. We were going to surprise him with the truth of what he himself had not dared to believe.
So, under the circumstances, it was in tolerably good heart that we finally fell asleep. To oversleep was not an auspicious start to a day of activity, and as I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling that was white with the harsh morning glare reflected from the wall, 1 did allow myself to think with longing of the journey that still lay ahead of us.
I leaned over and woke Frank. It
was time for us to be going. We would not stay for breakfast—even if breakfast were to be served to us, which I greatly doubted. We dressed and packed our things rapidly. P’rank suggested that we should leave the money for the night’s lodging on the washstand and clear out through the window, but I was curious to see what the house looked like after Louw’s visitation. So we shouldered our packs and left through the shattered door.
WE HAD to pick our way down the passage toward the hall room. Our footsteps crunched and squeaked on glass everywhere, as though someone had scattered sugar all over the floor. Horns from the walls lay on the floor at all angles and in all corners; only one set was still on the wall, and the curving horns were hanging upside down, pointing down in a gesture of fantastic and silent negation. I looked into the room next to ours in which Louw had rampaged. I noticed particularly the bed he had turned upside down, and from which he had then, for some reason, smashed all the legs. The metal showed grey and jagged, twinkling with tiny points of light where each limb had been truncated.
The hall room looked as though a bomb had burst within it. The doors were all smashed, the armchairs lay on their sides, ripped open, disemboweled, with tufts of a grey, woolly substance hanging out from each. Curtains were tumbled in a heap on the floor, and the curtain rod was hanging outward and downward from one hook only, ready to fall at any moment.
The front door gaped open on its upper half, where the glass had been: the lead which had held the glass was twisted into all sorts of shapes, from some of which a fragment of red or blue or green glass still hung. The little passage table leaned toward the floor like a slide, with its front legs couched before it. We carefully left the money on the floor in front of it.
Nobody had stirred as we had made our way out of the house. Not a sound had come from anywhere in the house. We might have been the first revenants to a house through which an army had passed, wrecking everything that the troops could not loot and carry along with them. No one watched us, called to us, asked us what we were doing; there was not so much as a creak from the rest of the house. It was a relief to get out of it, into the silence and heat of the stoep.
The sky was high and had that grey, glazed look that comes with the heat. Low down, near the horizon, there was a streak or two of cloud, thin stuff, crumbling away on either side into a few small marbles of white. There were no other clouds: we moved under a shining sky, without color, all color drained into the flame which was its centre.
If we had been able to look up we would probably have seen Joseph before. As it was, we almost stumbled on him. He was lying on his back under one of the bushes to the side of the path—I think it was an oleander—and the clustered stems of the plant and its dark green leaves cast a ragged island of shade in the bare, unrehabilitable sand. He was lying on his back, with his stained felt hat serving as a pillow. He got to his feet when he saw us coming, though he had not, I think, been asleep, and must have heard our approaching steps.
“Morning, basies,” he said to us.
“Good morning,” we replied.
“Soe! Maar dis warm vanmore, my basies!” he exclaimed emphatically. He was holding his crumpled hat in his hand, and with it still folded he wiped the sweat that was trickling down his forehead.
“It is hot.”
“When do you think it’s going to rain?” he asked.
I laughed. “I don’t know. You’re the one who lives in Mirredal. You should know.”
“Nee, baas.” He shook his head. “I don’t know.” He gazed up at the sky. “It must come one day,” he said.
“Ja,” Frank said. “But I hope we won’t be here still when it does.”
Joseph looked our packs over very carefully, first Frank’s, then mine. He hesitated, then asked: “Are the basies
going away this morning?”
I said: “I don’t know when we’re
going.” And Frank: “That’s what we want to talk to you about.”
“Talk to me?” Joseph asked. He moved his head back a little and stared at us. His lips moved toward a smile, but he did not smile. “Me?” he asked again.
I was both proud and afraid as I answered, letting us both in for it, irrevocably, now. “Yes. you. We^ren’t leaving until we’ve given you all the help that you need. And that’s what we want to talk to you about.”
Joseph said slowly and enquiringly: “The baas says that he wants to help me?”
“Yes,” I said. “We’re going to help you. You aren’t on your own any more. We’re ready to do whatever you think best to help you find out the things you must know.” I thought I understood Joseph’s incredulity, and Frank too threw in his voice with mine:
“We agreed last night that we would help you. We talked it over and we decided to do whatever you wanted us to do.”
Joseph dropped his head. I could not blame him for being incredulous; what an ugly history, I thought, lay behind that incredulity. We waited for a word from him. Eventually, he said: “You mean you want to help me in last night’s business?”
“Of course that’s what we mean. You said to Fletcher that we were your witnesses. Well, we are. Here we are, now. And we’re not only going to be your witnesses for what you already know, we’re going to help you find out what you don’t.” His incredulity could only strengthen our determination to help him.
Frank asked: “What do you think
we should do first?” He added: “We’ve already decided that the best thing would be for us to ask Fletcher what he did with the child. If we all three ask him he might tell us. Even if he doesn’t want to, we might be able to make him.” He waited for Joseph’s approval of the plan. Then he added: “You needn’t be afraid of Fletcher.” Then with a gesture of apology, a smile of admission, having been guilty of thoughtlessness: “You haven’t been
afraid of Fletcher up to now. But think,” Frank said, “how much stronger your position is now.”
“Ja, baas,” Joseph said, after a pause, though he had hardly seemed to have been considering what Frank had said to him. He looked from Frank to me. Then he said again: “Ja, baas.”
There was a guardedness, a neutrality, in his voice that made me ask:
“So? What do you think?” “Nothing, baas.”
“What do you mean you think nothing? What do you want us to do?” Joseph shuffled his feet, like a stupid and humble African. “Nothing, baas,” he said.
“You want us to do nothing?” Frank asked, his voice rising.
“But you must need our help!” I exclaimed.
“Help, baas? I don’t think so, baas.
I don’t think so.”
“But we are your witnesses.”
“Ja, baas,” Joseph said. “Last night, baas.”
“And this morning!”
“And this morning also, baas.”
“So nothing, baas.”
“You mean you aren’t going to go on?” Was he a coward, after all? I couldn’t believe it.
“Go on, baas?”
“Yes, go on with Fletcher.”
“Ja, baas.” He agreed with me promptly. I no longer knew to what it was that he was agreeing. I couldn’t have told from his tone of voice either, for he produced his agreement automatically like what is known as a “good Kaffir.”
“How will you go on with Baas Fletcher?” I asked. Only when I’d asked the question did I notice how I’d phrased it: the man’s manner had demanded it.
“I want to work for Baas Fletcher, baas,” he replied.
“But what about the trouble?” Frank asked.
“The trouble, baas?”
“Yes, the trouble last night. You
know what I’m talking about.”
“Baas,” Joseph said earnestly, frowning, his head a little down, as if he were trying to reassure us on some point about which we were, inexplicably, anxious, “I don’t think there will be any more trouble, for you.” He added helpfully: “I think the trouble is
finished, for you, baas.” His voice was kind and humble, and it undercut everything we had thought we would feel at this meeting.
‘‘1 don’t understand,” Frank said, a little indignantly.
“Understand, baas?” His own lack
of comprehension was profound, his voice implied.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
He shifted his weight. “I’m going to stay here, baas.”
“Yes, baas, in this house, baas.”
“They won’t let you,” I said.
He made no reply. He simply shook his head. “I don’t want to make any more trouble for you, baas,” he said after a pause. He looked down at our white upturned faces, his own face a shadow in the sun. We dropped our gaze. “Are the basies going a long
way today?” he asked at last.
“We have got a long way to go,” I said. “But—”
He looked up at the sun. “It’s getting late, my basies.” He pointed toward the sun with a small gesture.
And it’s still going to get hotter today, basies.”
“So you think we should go?” Frank asked abruptly.
He was humble and careful in his reply: “Baas, if the baas has still got a long way to go today then I think it might be better if the baas left now.”
I clung to what I knew we had over him: we were his witnesses. I said: “You’ll need our addresses.”
“Addresses, baas? I don’t think so.”
krank took out his wallet and tore off a piece of paper from a letter that was folded within it. He used the wallet as a pad and wrote his name and my name on the piece of paper, with our addresses underneath, his in Johannesburg, mine in Lyndhurst.
“Here,” he said.
Joseph took the piece of paper with care. He folded it slowly between his work-thickened fingers and put it in a pocket of his overalls. “Thank you, baas,” he said noncommittally.
You 11 write to us if there’s any trouble?” I asked.
And krank said: “We’ll be your witnesses if you ever want us to be.”
Joseph’s head hung above us. I saw him smiling, with a reluctant wrinkling of the rough skin about his mouth. “Write, baas?” he asked me. “I can’t write, baas,” he said gently.
‘Well, you can always get someone else to write for you,” I said cheerily.
1 here was no other tone I could adopt. Certainly there was nothing more we could do with Joseph. 1 hitched my pack higher to take the weight off the small of my back. “Good-by, Joseph,”
“Good-by,” Frank said.
“Good-by, baas,’’Josephsaid.“Thank you, baas,” he said, lifting his hand in his formal salute. “I hope the basies have a nice journey.”
WF BEGAN to move down the path again. But Joseph was unrelenting. He followed us to the gate and jumped in front of us to open it, and them stood aside and waited while; we wemt through. He might have; bt;en the boy whe) made our bo;ds or cle;anc;d our simes, and whe) still hoped, even at this late; stage, that we might, before leaving, fumble in our pockets and bring out feer him a sixpenny tip.
When we; we;re; through the gate we looked back and saw Joseph stretching himself in the shade again. It was then that Frank suggesteel that we; shoulel hide ourselves somewhere and see what would happen when Fletcher came out. We were both smarting under the treatment we; had just received and the knowledge of how blindly we had expensed ourselves to it, and in the emel, when we decided that we would wait, we“ eliel sei not out of any feeling that Joseph might yet need our help, nor out of a simple curiosity, but out of respect for Joseph. After what he had just done to us, we wanted tee see what he would elo to Fletcher.
Finding a place near the house in which to hide was not at all easy, for we wanted to be within sight and hearing of the house and yet concealed from view, and in all the hot flat veld there wasn’t much vegetation that would have given cover to anything larger than a dassie or a rock rabbit. Eventually we settled down among some rocks on the nearer bank of the river. A thornbush grew between the rocks and gave not only some concealment but also threw a necessary shade where we lay.
But later when Fletcher did come out, and Joseph spoke to him, we found that we could not hear what they were saying: we were too far away. So without thought, without consultation, and with no further attempt at concealment, we rose from our hiding place and simply walked across the sparse, rock-littered veld, to the fence around the house, where we stood on one side. We stood there in the sun, and neither Fletcher nor Joseph took the slightest notice of us.
Fletcher must have been exhausted from the previous night. He was broken, we could see, even though the first words we heard from him were:
“No, you can’t work for me.” “Baas,” Joseph said, “I am going to work for you.”
“How can you work for me?” Fletcher asked.
“I am going to work for you.” “Don’t say that to me!”
“I want to work for you, baas.”
“I’ll set the police on you, that’s what I’ll do.”
“No,” Joseph said, shaking his head. “You won’t set the police on me.” Then they were both silent. Joseph stood with his body stooped forward a little, toward the man he was determined should be his master. And Fletcher stood wearily, sideways, with his shoulder to Joseph, unable to look at him.
“You think,” Fletcher said, “you’ll be able to find out something from me?” He waited for a reply. But Joseph did not speak. “If I tell you that—if I tell you that I hurt nobody— will that be enough?” Still Joseph made no reply. “Then,” Fletcher shouted, “as long as I live not another sound about it will cross my lips.” Joseph did not say anything. “I’m telling you,” Fletcher said weakly.
“Baas,” Joseph said, “I’ll bring my things this afternoon. Then I’ll start work tomorrow.”
“And what will you do if I don’t let you?” Fletcher asked. Joseph did not reply. For the first time Fletcher looked at him, his head shaking—no, no, no. But all he said, after the silence, was: “There’s no work for you to do in the house.”
“I’ll find work.”
“What do you want of me?” Fletcher asked, with his hands lifted in front of his chest. “Can’t you leave me alone?” “No, baas.”
Again they were silent. “All right,” Fletcher shouted suddenly. “Bring your things! Work for me! I’ll make you work until you drop!” He began to laugh: it was a dry, high, desolate sound that the heat-ridden air cracked and carried toward us in fragments. He shook his fist at Joseph and laughed, he shouted: “That’s the only way
you’ll learn that I am still the baas.” “Ja, baas,” Joseph said.
The matter was settled apparently, for Joseph turned and began walking briskly toward the gate. Fletcher stared after him, his fist still raised, laughing no longer. Joseph must have seen us as he passed through the gate, but he made no sign that he had, nor did he look back once he had begun walking along the track toward the village.
We turned to look at Fletcher. Fletcher was dancing. Alone in the veld, in the middle of his dusty piece of ground, Fletcher was dancing with humiliation and rage and despair. He stamped his feet into the dust and gnawed his knuckles and twisted his ears and pulled at his chin and brandished his fists. He was still lifting his knees, he was still raising the dust about his ankles when we turned our backs on him. We left him dancing there, solitary in the veld, a grotesque little figure, capering under a blazing sun. ★