LITTLE Jannita sat alone beside a milk-bush. Before her and behind her stretched the plain, covered with red sand and thorny “Karroo” bushes; and here and there a milk-bush, looking like a bundle of pale green rods tied together. Not a tree was to be seen anywhere, except on the banks of the river, and
that was far away, and the sun beat on her head. Round her fed the Angora goats she was herding; pretty things, especially the little ones, with white silky curls that touched the ground. But Jannita sat crying. If an angel should gather up in his cup all the tears that have been shed, I think the bitterest would be those of children.
By and by she was so tired, and the sun was so hot, she laid her head against the milk-bush, and dropped asleep.
It was a beautiful dream.
While she lay thus dreaming, one of the little kids came and licked her on her cheek, because of the salt from her dried-up tears. And in her dream she was not a poor indentured child any more, living with Boers. It was her father who kissed her. He said he had only been asleep--that day when he lay down under the thorn-bush; he had not really died. He felt her hair, and said it was grown long and silky, and he said they would go back to Denmark now. He asked her why her feet were bare, and what the marks on her back were. Then he put her head on his shoulder, and picked her up, and carried her away, away! She laughed--she could feel her face against his brown beard. His arms were so strong.
As she lay there dreaming, with the ants running over her naked feet, and with her brown curls lying in the sand, a Hottentot came up to her. He was dressed in ragged yellow trousers, and a dirty shirt, and torn jacket. He had a red handkerchief round his head, and a felt hat above that. His nose was flat, his eyes like slits, and the wool on his head was gathered into little round balls. He came to the milk-bush, and looked at the little girl lying in the hot sun. Then he walked off, and caught one of the fattest little Angora goats, and held its mouth fast, as he stuck it under his arm. He looked back to see that she was still sleeping, and jumped down into one of the “sluits.” (The deep fissures, generally dry, in which the superfluous torrents of water are carried from the “Karroo” plains after thunderstorms.) He walked down the bed of the “sluit” a little way and came to an overhanging bank, under which, sitting on the red sand, were two men. One was a tiny, ragged, old bushman, four feet high; the other was an English navvy, in a dark blue blouse. They cut the kid's throat with the navvy's long knife, and covered up the blood with sand, and buried the entrails and skin. Then they talked, and quarrelled a little; and then they talked quietly again.
The Hottentot man put a leg of the kid under his coat and left the rest of the meat for the two in the “sluit,” and walked away.
When little Jannita awoke it was almost sunset. She sat up very frightened, but her goats were all about her. She began to drive them home. “I do not think there are any lost,” she said.
Dirk, the Hottentot, had brought his flock home already, and stood at the “kraal” door with his ragged yellow trousers. The fat old Boer put his stick across the door, and let Jannita's goats jump over, one by one. He counted them. When the last jumped over: “Have you been to sleep today?” he said; “there is one missing.”
Then little Jannita knew what was coming, and she said, in a low voice, “No.” And then she felt in her heart that deadly sickness that you feel when you tell a lie; and again she said, “Yes.”
“Do you think you will have any supper this evening?” said the Boer.
“No,” said Jannita.
“What do you think you will have?”
“I don't know,” said Jannita.
“Give me your whip,” said the Boer to Dirk, the Hottentot.
The moon was all but full that night. Oh, but its light was beautiful!
The little girl crept to the door of the outhouse where she slept, and looked at it. When you are hungry, and very, very sore, you do not cry. She leaned her chin on one hand, and looked, with her great dove's eyes--the other hand was cut open, so she wrapped it in her pinafore. She looked across the plain at the sand and the low karroo-bushes, with the moonlight on them.
Presently, there came slowly, from far away, a wild spring-buck. It came close to the house, and stood looking at it in wonder, while the moonlight glinted on its horns, and in its great eyes. It stood wondering at the red brick walls, and the girl watched it. Then, suddenly, as if it scorned it all, it curved its beautiful back and turned; and away it fled over the bushes and sand, like a sheeny streak of white lightning. She stood up to watch it. So free, so free! Away, away! She watched, till she could see it no more on the wide plain.
Her heart swelled, larger, larger, larger: she uttered a low cry; and without waiting, pausing, thinking, she followed on its track. Away, away, away! “I--I also!” she said, “I--I also!”
When at last her legs began to tremble under her, and she stopped to breathe, the house was a speck behind her. She dropped on the earth, and held her panting sides.
She began to think now.
If she stayed on the plain they would trace her footsteps in the morning and catch her; but if she waded in the water in the bed of the river they would not be able to find her footmarks; and she would hide, there where the rocks and the “kopjes” were.
(“Kopjes,” in the karroo, are hillocks of stone, that rise up singly or in clusters, here and there; presenting sometimes the fantastic appearance of old ruined castles or giant graves, the work of human hands.)
So she stood up and walked towards the river. The water in the river was low; just a line of silver in the broad bed of sand, here and there broadening into a pool. She stepped into it, and bathed her feet in the delicious cold water. Up and up the stream she walked, where it rattled over the pebbles, and past where the farmhouse lay; and where the rocks were large she leaped from one to the other. The night wind in her face made her strong--she laughed. She had never felt such night wind before. So the night smells to the wild bucks, because they are free! A free thing feels as a chained thing never can.
At last she came to a place where the willows grew on each side of the river, and trailed their long branches on the sandy bed. She could not tell why, she could not tell the reason, but a feeling of fear came over her.
On the left bank rose a chain of “kopjes” and a precipice of rocks. Between the precipice and the river bank there was a narrow path covered by the fragments of fallen rock. And upon the summit of the precipice a kippersol tree grew, whose palm-like leaves were clearly cut out against the night sky. The rocks cast a deep shadow, and the willow trees, on either side of the river. She paused, looked up and about her, and then ran on, fearful.
“What was I afraid of? How foolish I have been!” she said, when she came to a place where the trees were not so close together. And she stood still and looked back and shivered.
At last her steps grew wearier and wearier. She was very sleepy now, she could scarcely lift her feet. She stepped out of the river-bed. She only saw that the rocks about her were wild, as though many little “kopjes” had been broken up and strewn upon the ground, lay down at the foot of an aloe, and fell asleep.
But, in the morning, she saw what a glorious place it was. The rocks were piled on one another, and tossed this way and that. Prickly pears grew among them, and there were no less than six kippersol trees scattered here and there among the broken “kopjes.” In the rocks there were hundreds of homes for the coneys, and from the crevices wild asparagus hung down. She ran to the river, bathed in the clear cold water, and tossed it over her head. She sang aloud. All the songs she knew were sad, so she could not sing them now, she was glad, she was so free; but she sang the notes without the words, as the cock-o-veets do. Singing and jumping all the way, she went back, and took a sharp stone, and cut at the root of a kippersol, and got out a large piece, as long as her arm, and sat to chew it. Two coneys came out on the rock above her head and peeped at her. She held them out a piece, but they did not want it, and ran away.
It was very delicious to her. Kippersol is like raw quince, when it is very green; but she liked it. When good food is thrown at you by other people, strange to say, it is very bitter; but whatever you find yourself is sweet!
When she had finished she dug out another piece, and went to look for a pantry to put it in. At the top of a heap of rocks up which she clambered she found that some large stones stood apart but met at the top, making a room.
“Oh, this is my little home!” she said.
At the top and all round it was closed, only in the front it was open. There was a beautiful shelf in the wall for the kippersol, and she scrambled down again. She brought a great branch of prickly pear, and stuck it in a crevice before the door, and hung wild asparagus over it, till it looked as though it grew there. No one could see that there was a room there, for she left only a tiny opening, and hung a branch of feathery asparagus over it. Then she crept in to see how it looked. There was a glorious soft green light. Then she went out and picked some of those purple little ground flowers--you know them--those that keep their faces close to the ground, but when you turn them up and look at them they are deep blue eyes looking into yours! She took them with a little earth, and put them in the crevices between the rocks; and so the room was quite furnished. Afterwards she went down to the river and brought her arms full of willow, and made a lovely bed; and, because the weather was very hot, she lay down to rest upon it.
She went to sleep soon, and slept long, for she was very weak. Late in the afternoon she was awakened by a few cold drops falling on her face. She sat up. A great and fierce thunderstorm had been raging, and a few of the cool drops had fallen through the crevice in the rocks. She pushed the asparagus branch aside, and looked out, with her little hands folded about her knees. She heard the thunder rolling, and saw the red torrents rush among the stones on their way to the river. She heard the roar of the river as it now rolled, angry and red, bearing away stumps and trees on its muddy water. She listened and smiled, and pressed closer to the rock that took care of her. She pressed the palm of her hand against it. When you have no one to love you, you love the dumb things very much. When the sun set, it cleared up. Then the little girl ate some kippersol, and lay down again to sleep. She thought there was nothing so nice as to sleep. When one has had no food but kippersol juice for two days, one doesn't feel strong.
“It is so nice here,” she thought as she went to sleep, “I will stay here always.”
Afterwards the moon rose. The sky was very clear now, there was not a cloud anywhere; and the moon shone in through the bushes in the door, and made a lattice-work of light on her face. She was dreaming a beautiful dream. The loveliest dreams of all are dreamed when you are hungry. She thought she was walking in a beautiful place, holding her father's hand, and they both had crowns on their heads, crowns of wild asparagus. The people whom they passed smiled and kissed her; some gave her flowers, and some gave her food, and the sunlight was everywhere. She dreamed the same dream over and over, and it grew more and more beautiful; till, suddenly, it seemed as though she were standing quite alone. She looked up: on one side of her was the high precipice, on the other was the river, with the willow trees, drooping their branches into the water; and the moonlight was over all. Up, against the night sky the pointed leaves of the kippersol trees were clearly marked, and the rocks and the willow trees cast dark shadows.
In her sleep she shivered, and half awoke.
“Ah, I am not there, I am here,” she said; and she crept closer to the rock, and kissed it, and went to sleep again.
It must have been about three o'clock, for the moon had begun to sink towards the western sky, when she woke, with a violent start. She sat up, and pressed her hand against her heart.
“What can it be? A coney must surely have run across my feet and frightened me!” she said, and she turned to lie down again; but soon she sat up. Outside, there was the distinct sound of thorns crackling in a fire.
She crept to the door and made an opening in the branches with her fingers.
A large fire was blazing in the shadow, at the foot of the rocks. A little Bushman sat over some burning coals that had been raked from it, cooking meat. Stretched on the ground was an Englishman, dressed in a blouse, and with a heavy, sullen face. On the stone beside him was Dirk, the Hottentot, sharpening a bowie knife.
She held her breath. Not a coney in all the rocks was so still.
“They can never find me here,” she said; and she knelt, and listened to every word they said. She could hear it all.
“You may have all the money,” said the Bushman; “but I want the cask of brandy. I will set the roof alight in six places, for a Dutchman burnt my mother once alive in a hut, with three children.”
“You are sure there is no one else on the farm?” said the navvy.
“No, I have told you till I am tired,” said Dirk; “the two Kaffirs have gone with the son to town; and the maids have gone to a dance; there is only the old man and the two women left.”
“But suppose,” said the navvy, “he should have the gun at his bedside, and loaded!”
“He never has,” said Dirk; “it hangs in the passage, and the cartridges too. He never thought when he bought it what work it was for! I only wish the little white girl was there still,” said Dirk; “but she is drowned. We traced her foot marks to the great pool that has no bottom.”
She listened to every word, and they talked on.
Afterwards, the little Bushman, who crouched over the fire, sat up suddenly, listening.
“Ha! what is that?” he said.
A Bushman is like a dog: his ear is so fine he knows a jackal's tread from a wild dog's.
“I heard nothing,” said the navvy.
“I heard,” said the Hottentot; “but it was only a coney on the rocks.”
“No coney, no coney,” said the Bushman; “see, what is that there moving in the shade round the point?”
“Nothing, you idiot!” said the navvy. “Finish your meat; we must start now.”
There were two roads to the homestead. One went along the open plain, and was by far the shortest; but you might be seen half a mile off. The other ran along the river bank, where there were rocks, and holes, and willow-trees to hide among. And all down the river bank ran a little figure.
The river was swollen by the storm full to its banks, and the willow trees dipped their half-drowned branches into its water. Wherever there was a gap between them, you could see it flow, red and muddy, with the stumps upon it. But the little figure ran on and on; never looking, never thinking; panting, panting! There, where the rocks were the thickest; there, where on the open space the moonlight shone; there, where the prickly pears were tangled, and the rocks cast shadows, on it ran; the little hands clinched, the little heart beating, the eyes fixed always ahead.
It was not far to run now. Only the narrow path between the high rocks and the river.
At last she came to the end of it, and stood for an instant. Before her lay the plain, and the red farm-house, so near, that if persons had been walking there you might have seen them in the moonlight. She clasped her hands. “Yes, I will tell them, I will tell them!” she said; “I am almost there!” She ran forward again, then hesitated. She shaded her eyes from the moonlight, and looked. Between her and the farm-house there were three figures moving over the low bushes.
In the sheeny moonlight you could see how they moved on, slowly and furtively; the short one, and the one in light clothes, and the one in dark.
“I cannot help them now!” she cried, and sank down on the ground, with her little hands clasped before her.
“Awake, awake!” said the farmer's wife; “I hear a strange noise; something calling, calling, calling!”
The man rose, and went to the window.
“I hear it also,” he said; “surely some jackal's at the sheep. I will load my gun and go and see.”
“It sounds to me like the cry of no jackal,” said the woman; and when he was gone she woke her daughter.
“Come, let us go and make a fire, I can sleep no more,” she said; “I have heard a strange thing tonight. Your father said it was a jackal's cry, but no jackal cries so. It was a child's voice, and it cried, ‘Master, master, wake!’”
The women looked at each other; then they went to the kitchen, and made a great fire; and they sang psalms all the while.
At last the man came back; and they asked him, “What have you seen?”“Nothing,” he said, “but the sheep asleep in their kraals, and the moonlight on the walls. And yet, it did seem to me,” he added, “that far away near the ‘krantz’ [precipice] by the river, I saw three figures moving. And afterwards--it might have been fancy--I thought I heard the cry again; but since that, all has been still there.”
Next day a navvy had returned to the railway works.
“Where have you been so long?” his comrades asked.
“He keeps looking over his shoulder,” said one, “as though he thought he should see something there.”
“When he drank his grog today,” said another, “he let it fall, and looked round.”
Next day, a small old Bushman, and a Hottentot, in ragged yellow trousers, were at a wayside canteen. When the Bushman had had brandy, he began to tell how something (he did not say whether it was man, woman, or child) had lifted up its hands and cried for mercy; had kissed a white man's hands, and cried to him to help it. Then the Hottentot took the Bushman by the throat, and dragged him out.
Next night, the moon roseup, and mounted the quiet sky. She was full now, and looked in at the little home; at the purple flowers stuck about the room, and the kippersol on the shelf. Her light fell on the willow trees, and on the high rocks, and on a little new-made heap of earth and round stones. Three men knew what was under it; and no one else ever will.