From Mafeking Road
by Herman Charles Bosman
You mention the juba-plant (Oom Schalk Lourens said). Oh, yes, everybody in the Marico knows about the juba-plant. It grows high up on the krantzes, and they say you must pick off one of its little red berries at midnight, under the full moon. Then, if you are a young man, and you are anxious for a girl to fall in love with you, all you have to do is squeeze the juice of the juba-berry into her coffee.
They say that after the girl has drunk the juba-juice, she begins to forget all sorts of things. She forgets that your forehead is rather low, and that your ears stick out, and that your mouth is too big. She even forgets having told you, the week before last, that she wouldn’t marry you if you were the only man in the Transvaal.
All she knows is that the man she gazes at, over her empty coffee cup, has grown remarkably handsome. You can see from this that the plant must be very potent in its effects. I mean, if you consider what some of the men in the Marico look like.
One night I was out shooting in the veld with a lamp fastened on my hat. You know that kind of shooting: in the glare of the lamplight you can only see the eyes of the thing you are aiming at, and you get three months if you are caught. They made it illegal to hunt by lamplight since the time a policeman got shot in the foot, this way, when he was out tracking cattle-smugglers on the Bechuanaland border.
The magistrate at Zeerust, who did not know the ways of the cattle-smugglers, found that the shooting was an accident. This verdict satisfied everybody except the policeman, whose foot was still bandaged when he came into court. But the men in the Volksraad, some of whom had been cattle-smugglers themselves, knew better than the magistrate did as to how the policeman came to have a couple of buckshot in the soft part of his foot, and accordingly they brought in this new law.
Therefore I walked very quietly that night on the krantz. Frequently I put out my hand and stood very still amongst the trees, and waited long moments to make sure I was not being followed. Ordinarily, there would have been little to fear, but a couple of days before two policemen had been seen disappearing into the bush. By their looks they seemed young policemen, anxious for promotion, who didn’t know that it is more becoming for a policeman to drink an honest farmer’s peach brandy than to arrest him for hunting by lamplight.
I was walking along, turning the light from side to side, when suddenly, about a hundred paces from me, in the full brightness of the lamp, I saw a pair of eyes. When I also saw, above the eyes, a policeman’s khaki helmet, I remembered that a moonlight night, such as that was, was not so good for finding buck.
So I went home.
I took the shortest way, too, which was over the side of the krantz – the steep side – and on my way down I clutched at a variety of branches, tree-roots, stone ledges and tufts of grass. Later on, at the foot of the krantz, when I came to and was able to sit up, there was that policeman bending over me.
‘Oom Schalk,’ he said, ‘I was wondering if you would lend me your lamp.’
I looked up. It was Gideon van der Merwe, a young policeman who had been stationed for some time at Derdepoort. I had met him on several occasions, and had found him very likeable.
‘You can have my lamp,’ I answered, ‘but you must be very careful. It’s worse for a policeman to get caught breaking the law than for an ordinary man.’
Gideon van der Merwe shook his head.
‘No, I don’t want to go shooting with the lamp, he said, ‘I want to …’.
And then he paused.
He laughed nervously.
‘It seems silly to say it, Oom Schalk,’ he said, ‘but perhaps you’ll understand. I’ve come to look for a juba-plant. I need it for my studies. For my third-class sergeant’s exam. And it’ll soon be midnight, and I can’t find one of those plants anywhere.’
I felt sorry for Gideon. It struck me that he would never make a good policeman. If he couldn’t find a juba-plant, of which there were thousands on the krantz, it would be much harder for him to find the spoor of a cattle smuggler.’
So I handed him my lamp and explained where he had to go and look. Gideon thanked me and walked off.
Half an hour later he was back.
He took a red berry out of his tunic pocket and showed it to me.
For fear that he should tell any more lies about needing that juba-berry for his studies, I spoke first.
‘Lettie Cordier?’ I asked.
Gideon nodded. He was very shy, though, and wouldn’t talk much at the start. But I had guessed long ago that Gideon van der Merwe was not calling at Krisjan Cordier’s house so often just to hear Krisjan relate the story of his life.
Next morning I rode over to Krisjan Cordier’s farm to remind him about a tin of sheep-dip that he still owed me from the last dipping season. When Lettie came in with the coffee, I made a casual remark to her father about Gideon van der Merwe.
I didn’t take much notice of Krisjan’s remarks, however. Instead, I looked carefully at Lettie when I mentioned Gideon’s name. She didn’t give much away, but I am quick at these things, and I saw enough. The colour that crept into her cheeks. The light that came in her eyes.
On my way back I encountered Lettie. She was standing under a thorn-tree. With her brown arms and her sweet, quiet face and her full bosom, she was a very pretty picture. There was no doubt that Lettie Cordier would make a fine wife for any man. It wasn’t hard to understand Gideon’s feelings about her.
‘Lettie,’ I asked, ‘do you love him?’
‘I love him, Oom Schalk,’ she answered.
It was as simple as that.
When I saw Gideon some time afterwards, he was elated, as I had expected he would be.
‘So the juba-plant worked?’ I enquired.
‘It was wonderful, Oom Schalk,’ Gideon answered, ‘and the funny part of it is that Lettie’s father wasn’t there, either, when I put that juba-juice into her coffee. Lettie had brought him a message, just before then, that he was wanted in the mealie-lands.’
‘And was the juba-juice all they claim for it?’
‘You’d be surprised how quickly it acted,’ he said. ‘Lettie just took one sip at the coffee, and then jumped straight onto my lap.’
But then Gideon van der Merwe winked in a way that made me believe that he was not so very simple, after all.
‘I was pretty certain that the juba-juice would work, Oom Schalk,’ he said, ‘after Lettie’s father told me that you had visited there that morning.’