Search      Hot    Newest Novel
HOME > Short Stories > Life in South Africa > PART XI.
Font Size:【Large】【Middle】【Small】
Maritzburg, August 1, 1876.

The brief winter season seems already ended and over, so far as the crisp, bracing atmosphere is concerned. For many days past it has been not only very hot in the sun, but a light hot air has brooded over everything. Not strong enough to be called a hot wind, it is yet like the quivering haze out of a furnace-mouth. I pity the poor trees: it is hard upon them. Not a drop of rain has fallen for three months to refresh their dried-up leaves and thirsting roots, and now the sun beats down with a fiercer fire than ever, and draws up the drop of moisture which haply may linger low down in the cool earth. Cool earth, did I say? I fear that is a figure of speech. It almost burns one’s feet through the soles of thin boots, and each particle of dust is like a tiny cinder. I think regretfully of the pleasant, sharp, frosty mornings and evenings, even though the days are lengthening, and one may now count by weeks the time before the rain will come, and fruits and vegetables, milk and butter, be once more obtainable with comparative ease. What I most long for, however, is a good pelting shower, a down-pour which will fill the tanks and make water plentiful. I am always rushing out in the sun to see that the horses and the fowls and all the animals have enough water to drink. In spite of all my care, they all seem in a chronic state of thirst, for the Kafirs are too lazy and careless to think that it matters if tubs get empty or if a horse comes home too late to be led down to the river with the rest. The water that I drink myself—and I drink nothing else—would give a sanitary inspector a fit to look at, even after it has passed through two filters. But it goes through many vicissitudes before it reaches this comparatively clean stage. It is brought from the river (which is barely able to move sluggishly over its ironstone bed) through clouds of dust. If the Kafir rests his pails for a moment outside before pouring their contents into the first large filter, the pony, who is always on the lookout for a chance, plunges his muzzle in among the green boughs with snorts of satisfaction; the pigeons fly in circles round the man’s head, trying to take advantage of the first favorable moment for a bath; and not only dogs, but even cats, press up for a drop. This is because it is cool, and not so dusty as that in pans outside. There is not a leaf anywhere yet large enough to give shade, and the water outside soon becomes loathsomely hot. Of course it is an exceptionally dry season. All the weather and all the seasons I have ever met with in the course of my life always have been quite out of the ordinary routine. Doubtless, it is kindly meant on the part of the inhabitants, and is probably intended as a consolation to the new-comer. But I am too well used to it to be comforted. Even when one comes back to dear old England after three or four years’ absence, and arrives, say, early in May, everybody professes to be amazed that there should be a keen east wind blowing, and apologizes for the black hard buds on the lilac trees and the iron-bound earth and sky by assurances that “There have been such east winds this year!” Just as if there are not “such” east winds every year!

After these last few amiable lines it will hardly surprise any one to hear that this is the irritating hot wind which is blowing so lightly. You must know we have hot winds from nearly opposite quarters. There is one from the north-east, which comes down from Delagoa Bay and all the fever-haunted region thereabouts, which is more unhealthy than this. That furnace-breath makes you languid and depressed: exertion is almost an impossibility, thought is an effort. But this light air represents the healthy hot wind, a nice rasping zephyr—a wind which dries you up like a Normandy pippin, and puts you and keeps you in the most peevish, discontented frame of mind. It has swept over the burning deserts of the interior, and comes from the north-west, and I can only say there is aggravation in every puff of it. The only person toward whom I feel at all kindly disposed when this wind is blowing is Jim. Jim is a new Kafir-lad, Tom’s successor, for Tom’s battles with Charlie became rather too frequent to be borne in a quiet household. Jim is such a nice boy, and Jim’s English is delightful. He began by impressing upon me through Maria that he had “no Inglis,” but added immediately, “Jim no sheeky.” Certainly he is not cheeky, but, on the contrary, the sweetest-tempered creature you could meet with anywhere. He must be about sixteen years old, but he is over six feet high, and as straight as a willow wand. To see Jim stride along by the side of my little carriage is to be reminded of the illustrations to the Seven-League-Boots story. At first, Jim tried to coil and fold and double his long legs into the small perch at the back of the pony-carriage, but he always tumbled out at a rut in the road, and kept me in perpetual terror of his snapping himself in two. Not that there are many ruts now in my road, I would have you know. It is all solid dust, about three feet deep everywhere. A road-party worked at it in their own peculiar way for many weeks this fall, and the old Dutch overseer used to assure me with much pride every time I passed that he “vas making my ladyships a boofler road mit grabels.” Of course it was the queen’s highway at which he and his Kafirs dug, but it pleased him to regard it as my private path, and this gave him greater courage to throw out “schnapps” as a suggestion worthy of my attention.

Will you believe me when I declare that in spite of all these weary weeks of drought, in spite of this intense blaze of burning sunshine all through the thirsty day, the long stretches of the blackened country are showing tender green shoots round the stumps of the old rank grass burned away long ago? It seems little short of a miracle when one sees the baked earth, hard as a granite cliff, dry as a last year’s bone, and through its parched, pulverized surface little clumps of trefoil are springing everywhere, and young blades of grass. On the mulberry trees, too, the buttons have burst into tufts of dainty leaves, which assert themselves more and more every day, and herald that wealth of freshest greenery in which Natal was clad over hill and dale when first I saw her last November. Then I could not take in that the smiling emerald downs which stretched around me could ever be the arid desolate wasteland they now appear; and now I can scarcely summon up faith enough to believe in the miracle of the spring resurrection close at hand, of which these few lonely leaves and blades are the sign and token.

Yes, Jim’s English is very droll—all the more so for his anxiety to practice it, in spite of his protestations to the contrary. Jim is a great meteorologist, unlike the majority of Kafirs, from whom you can extract no opinion whatever. They say the rain-doctor is the proper person to determine whether it is going to be fair or foul weather. I have asked Charlie whether it was going to rain when the heavy clouds have been almost over our heads, just to hear what he would say; and Charlie has answered with Turkish fatalism, “Oh, ma’, I doan know: if it like to rain, it will, but if it don’t, it won’t.” Now, Jim does proffer an opinion, expressed by a good deal of pantomime, and Jim is quite as often right as most weather-prophets. Jim studies the skies on account of getting and keeping his wood-heap dry, and prides himself on neat stacks of chopped-up fuel. I gave Jim an orange the other day, and he took it in the graceful Kafir fashion with both hands, and burst forth into all his English at once: “Oh, danks, ma’: inkosa-casa vezy kind new face, vezy. Jim no sheeky: oh yaas, all lite!” His meaning can only dimly be guessed at, especially about the new face. I wish with all my heart I could get a new face, for this one is much the worse for the South African sun and my inveterate habit of loitering about out of doors whenever I can, and spending most of my waking hours in the verandah.
August 4.

Since I last wrote there has not been much loitering out of doors, nor has any one who could possibly avoid doing so even put his nose outside. The hot zephyr I alluded to three days ago suddenly changed to a furious hot gale, the worst I have ever seen—hotter than a New Zealand nor’-wester, and as heavy as a hurricane. The clouds of dust baffle description. The direction, too, from whence it came must also have changed, for a sort of epidemic of low fever is hanging about, and the influenza would be ludicrous from the number of its victims if it were not so disagreeable and so dangerous. All the washermen and washerwomen in the whole place are ill, the entire body of Kafir police is on the sick list, all one’s servants are laid up—Charlie says pathetically, “Too moch plenty cough inside, ma’”—and everybody looks wretched. The “inkos” which one hears in passing are either a hoarse growl or a wheezy whisper. When you consider how absolutely dry the atmosphere must be, it is difficult to imagine how people catch such constant and severe colds as they do here. I am bound to say, however, that except with this influenza a cold does not last so long as it does in England, but I think you catch cold oftener; and the reason is not far to seek. In these hot winds, or out of the broiling midday sun, some visitor rides up from town, and arrives here or elsewhere very hot indeed. Then he comes into a little drawing-room with its thick stone walls and closed, darkened windows, and exclaims, “How delightfully cool you are here!” but in five minutes he is shivering; and the next thing I hear is that he has cold or fever. Yet what is one to do? I have to keep in-doors all day: I must have a cool room to sit in; and as long as one has not been taking exercise out of doors, it does no harm.

The gale of hot wind seemed to set the whole place on fire. I should not have thought a tussock had been left anywhere, but every night lately has been made bright as day by the glare of blazing hillsides. Then I leave my readers to imagine the state of a house into which all these fine particles of soot filter through ill-fitting doors and windows, driven by a furious hurricane. The other morning poor little G—— ’s plate of porridge set aside to cool in the dining-room, with every door and window closed, had a layer of black burnt grass on the top in five minutes; and the state of the tablecloth, milk, etc. baffles description. Indeed, one’s life is a life of dusting and scrubbing and cleaning generally, if a house is to be kept even tolerably tidy in these parts.

I forget if I have ever told you of the spiders here. They are another sorrow to the careful housewife, spinning webs in every corner, across doorways, filling up spaces beneath tables, flinging their a?rial bridges from chair to chair—all in a single night—and regarding glass and china ornaments merely as a nucleus or starting-point for a filmy labyrinth.
August 10.

Every now and then, when I give way to temper and a hot wind combined, and write crossly about the climate, my conscience reproaches me severely with a want of fairness when the weather changes, as it generally does directly, and we have some exquisite days and nights. For instance, directly after I last wrote our first spring showers fell—very coyly, it is true, and almost as if the clouds had forgotten how to dissolve into rain. Still, the very smell of the moist earth was delicious, and ever since that wet night the whole country has been
Growing glorious
Quietly, day by day;

and except in the very last-burnt patches a faint and hesitating tinge of palest green is stealing over all the bleak hillsides. My poor bamboos are still mere shriveled ghosts of the fair green plumes which used to rustle and wave all through the drenching summer weather, but everything else is pushing a leaf here and a shoot there wherever it can, and, joy of joys! there has been no dust for a day or two. All looks washed and refreshed: parched-up Nature accepts this shower as the first installment of the deluge which is coming presently. In the mean time, the air is delicious, and even the poor influenza victims are creeping about in the sunshine. The Kafirs have suffered most, and it is really quite sad to see how weak they are, and how grateful for a little nourishing food, which they absolutely require at present.

I took advantage of the first of these new spring days, with their cool air, to make a little expedition I have long had on my mind. From my verandah I can see on the opposite hills, at about my own lofty elevation of fifty feet or so, the white tents beyond the dark walls of Fort Napier. Now, this little spot represents the only shelter and safety in all the country-side in case of a “difficulty” with our swarming dusky neighbors. Here and there in other townships there are “laagers,” or loopholed enclosures, within which wagons can be dragged and a stand made against a sudden Kafir raid; but here, at the seat of government, there is a battalion of an English regiment, a thousand strong, and a regular, orthodox fortified place, with some heavy pieces of ordnance. But you know of old how terribly candid I am, so I must confess at once that it was not with the smallest idea of ascertaining for myself the military strength and capability of Fort Napier that I paid it a visit that fine spring morning. No: my object was of the purest domestic character, and indeed was only to see with my own eyes what these new Kafir huts were like, with a view to borrowing the idea for a spare room here. Could anything be more peaceful than such a project? I felt like the old wife in Jean Ingelow’s Brides of Enderby as I drove slowly up the steep hill, at the brow of which I could already see the pacing sentries and the grim cannon-mouth—
And why should this thing be?
What danger lowers by land or sea?

I might have answered as she did,
For storms be none, and pyrates flee;

for, although there are skirmishes beyond our borders, we ourselves, thank God! dwell in peace and safety within them. Nothing could be more picturesque than the gleaming white points now standing sharply out in snowy vandykes against a cobalt sky, or else toned harmoniously down against a soft gray cloud; now glistening on a background of green hillside, or nestling dimly in a dusty hollow. There is only barrack-room for half the regiment, and the other half, under canvas, takes a good many tents and covers a good deal of ground. Although the soldiers have got through the winter very well, it would not be prudent to trust them to the shelter of a tent during the coming summer months of alternate flood and sunshine. So Kafirs have been busy building nearly a hundred of their huts on an improved plan all this dry weather, and these little dwellings are now just ready for their complement of five men apiece. They are a great step in advance of the original Kafir hut, and it was for this reason I came to see them, lured also by hearing that they only cost four pounds apiece. We are so terribly cramped for room here. I have only ventured on one tiny addition—a dressing-room about as big as the cabin of a ship, which cost nearly eighty pounds to build of stone like the rest of the house. So I have had it on my mind for some time that it would be a very fine thing to build one of these glorified Kafir huts close to the house for a spare room. The real Kafir hut is exactly like a beehive, without door or window, and only a small hole to creep in and out at. These new military huts have circular walls, five feet high and about a dozen feet in diameter, made of closely-woven wattles, and covered within and without with clay. I stood watching the Kafirs working at one for some time. It certainly looked a rude and simple process. Some four or five stalwart Kafirs were squatting on the ground hard by, “snuffing” and conversing with much gesticulation and merriment. They were the off-gang, I imagine. Three or four more were tranquilly and in a leisurely fashion trampling the wet clay and daubing it on with their hands inside and out. They had not the ghost of a tool of any sort, and yet the result was wonderfully good. I wondered why finely-chopped grass was not mixed with the clay, as I have seen the New Zealand shepherds do in preparing the “cob” for their mud walls; but I was told that the Kafir would greatly object to anything so uncomfortable for his bare legs and feet. Of course, the shepherd works up the ugly mass with a spade, whilst here these men slowly trample it to the right consistency. The plastering is really a triumph of (literally) handiwork, though the process is exasperatingly slow. At first the mud comes out all over thumb-marks, and dries so, but in a day or two buckets of water are dashed over it, so as to remoisten it, and then it is once more patiently smoothed all over with the palm of the hand until an absolutely smooth surface is obtained, as flat and flawless as though the best of trowels had been used. A neatly-fitting door and window have meantime been made in the regimental workshop, and hung in the spaces left for them in the wattled walls. More wattles, closely woven together, are put on in the shape of a very irregular dome, and this is thatched nearly a foot deep with long rank grass tied securely down by endless ropes of finely-plaited grass. The result is a spacious, cool, and most comfortable circular room, and those which are finished and fitted up with shelves and camp furniture look as nice as possible. A little tuft of straw at the apex of each dome is at once a lightning-conductor and a finish to the quaint little building. The plastered walls of some huts are whitewashed, but the most popular idea seems to be to tar them and make them still more weather-proof. A crooked stick or two, being merely the rough branch of a tree, stands in the centre and acts as a musket-rack and tent-pole to the little dwelling. The Kafirs get only one pound ten shillings for each hut, and the wooden fittings are calculated to cost about two pounds ten shillings more; but I hear that they grumble a good deal on account of the distance from which they have to bring the grass, all in the neighborhood having been burnt. They also regard it as women’s work, for all the kraals are built by women.

On the whole, I am more than ever taken with the idea of a Kafir spare room, and quite hope to carry it out some day, the huts look so cool and healthy and clean. The thatch and mud walls will keep off the sun in the hot weather before us; and as all the huts stand on a gentle slope, there is no fear of their being damp. It is wonderful how well the soldiers have managed hitherto under canvas, and how healthy they have been; but I can quite understand that it is not well to presume upon such good luck during another wet season. As we were up in camp, we looked at all the soldiers’ arrangements—the canteen, where mustard and pickles seemed to be the most popular articles of food; the schoolhouse, a wee brick building, in which both the children and the recruits have to learn, and which is also used as a chapel on Sunday. Everything was the pink of neatness and cleanliness, as is always the case where soldiers or sailors live, and I was much struck by the absolute silence and repose of so small an enclosure with a thousand men inside it. I wondered whether a thousand women could have kept so quiet? Of course I peeped into the kitchen, and instantly coveted the beautiful brick oven out of which sundry smoking platters were being drawn. But curry and rice was the chief dish in the bill of fare for that day, and I can only say the smell was excellent and exceedingly appetizing. The view all round, too, was charming. Just at our feet lay the hollow where the men’s gardens are. Such potatoes and pumpkins! such cabbages and onions! The men delight in cultivating the willing soil in which all vegetables grow so luxuriantly and easily; and it is so managed that it shall be a profit as well as a pleasure to them. In many ways this encouragement of a taste for gardening is good: there is the first consideration of the advantage to themselves, and it is indirectly a boon to us, for if a thousand men were added to the consumers of the few potatoes and vegetables which daily find their way into the Maritzburg market, I know not what would become of us. Our last stroll was to the brow of another down close by, also crowned with white tents. Beneath it lay the military graveyard, and I have seldom seen anything more poetic and touching than the effect of this lovely garden—for so it looked, a spot of purest green, tenderly cared for—amid the bare winter coloring of all the country-side. The hills folded it softly, as if it were a precious place, the sun lay brightly on it, and the quiet sleeping-ground was made orderly and tranquil by many a sheltering tree and blooming shrub. I promised myself to come in summer and look down on it again when all the wealth of roses and geraniums are out, and when these brown hillsides are green and glorious with their tropic pasture.

You will think I have indeed taken a sudden mania for soldiers and camps when I tell you that a very few days after my visit to Fort Napier I joyfully accepted the offer of a friend to take me to see the annual joint encampment of the Natal Carbineers and D’Urban Mounted Rifles out on Botha’s Flat, rather more than halfway between this and D’Urban. Not only was I delighted at the chance of seeing that lovely bit of country more at my leisure than dashing through it in the post-cart, but I have always so much admired the pluck and spirit of this handful of volunteers, who keep up the discipline and prestige of their little corps in the teeth of all sorts of difficulties and discouragements, that I was glad to avail myself of the opportunity of paying them a visit when they were out in camp. For many years past these smart light-horse have struggled on in spite of obstacles to attending drill, want of money, lack of public attention and interest, and a thousand other lets and hinderances. Living as we do in such a chronically precarious position—a position in which five minutes’ official ill-temper or ever so trifling an injudicious action might set the whole Kafir population in a blaze of discontent, and even revolt—too much importance cannot, in my poor judgment, be attached to the volunteer movement; and it seems to me worthy in the highest degree of every encouragement a............
Join or Log In! You need to log in to continue reading

Login into Your Account

  Remember me on this computer.

All The Data From The Network AND User Upload, If Infringement, Please Contact Us To Delete! Contact Us
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Tag List | Recent Search  
©2010-2014, All Rights Reserved