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From A Bekkersdal Marathon
by Herman Charles Bosman
It all happened through Dominee Welthagen one Sunday morning going into a trance in the pulpit. And we did not realise that he was in a trance. It was an illness that overtook him in a strange and sudden fashion.
At each service the predikant, after reading a passage from the Bible, would lean forward with his hand on the pulpit rail and give out the number of the hymn we had to sing. For years his manner of conducting the service had been exactly the same. He would say, for instance, ‘We will now sing Psalm 82, verses 1 to 4.’ Then he would allow his head to sink forward onto his chest and he would remain rigid, as though in prayer, until the last notes of the hymn died away in the church.
Now, on that particular morning, just after he had announced the number of the psalm, without mentioning which verses, Dominee Welthagen again took a firm grip on the pulpit rail, and allowed his head to sink forward onto his breast. We did not realise that he had fallen into a trance of a peculiar character that kept his body standing upright while his mind was blank. We only learned that later.
In the meantime, while the organ was playing the opening bars, we began to realise that Dominee Welthagen had not indicated how many verses we had to sing. But he would discover his mistake, we thought, after we had been singing for a few minutes.
All the same, one or two of the younger members of the congregation did titter, slightly, when they took up their hymn-books. For Dominee Welthagen had announced Psalm 119. And everybody knows that Psalm 119 has 176 verses.
That was a church service that will never be forgotten in Bekkersdal.
We sang the first verse, and then the second, and then the third. When we got to about the sixth verse, and the minister still gave no sign that it would be the last, we assumed that he wished us to sing the first eight verses. For, if you open your hymn-book, you will see that Psalm 119 is divided into sets of eight verses, each ending with the word ‘Pouse’.
We ended the last notes of verse eight with more than an ordinary number of turns and twirls, confident that at any moment Dominee Welthagen would raise his head and let us know that we could sing ‘Amen’.
It was when the organ started up very slowly and solemnly with the music for verse nine that a real feeling of disquiet overcame the congregation. But, of course, we gave no sign of what went on in our minds. We held Dominee Welthagen in too much veneration.
Nevertheless, I would rather not say too much about our feelings, when verse followed verse, and Pouse succeeded Pouse, and still Dominee Welthagen made no sign that we had sung long enough, or that there was anything unusual about what he was demanding of us.
After they had recovered from their first surprise, the members of the church council conducted themselves in a most exemplary manner. Elders and deacons tiptoed up and down the aisles, whispering words of reassurance to such members of the congregation, men as well as women, who gave signs of wanting to panic.
At one stage it looked as though we were going to have trouble from the organist. That was when Billy Robertse, at the end of the 34th verse, held up his black bottle and signalled quietly to the elders to indicate that his medicine had finished. At the end of the 35th verse he made signals of a less quiet character, and again at the end of the 36th verse. That was when Elder Landsman tiptoed out of the church and went round to the Konsistorie, where the Nagmaal wine was kept. When Elder Landsman came back into the church he had a long black bottle half-hidden under his manel. He took the bottle up to the organist’s gallery, still walking on tiptoe.
At verse 61 there was almost a breakdown. That was when a message came from the back of the organ, where Koster Claassen and the assistant verger, whose task it was to turn the handle that kept the organ supplied with wind, were in a state close to exhaustion. So it was Deacon Cronje’s turn to go tiptoeing out of the church. Deacon Cronje was head-warder at the local gaol. When he came back it was with three burly convicts in striped jerseys, who also went through the church on tiptoe. They arrived just in time to take over the handle from Koster Claassen and the assistant verger.
At verse 98 the organist again started making signals about his medicine. Once more Elder Landsman went round to the Konsistorie. This time he was accompanied by another elder and a deacon, and they stayed away somewhat longer than the previous time when Elder Landsman had gone on his own. On their return, the deacon bumped into a small hymn-book table at the back of the church. Perhaps it was because the deacon was a fat, red-faced man, not used to tiptoeing.
At verse 124 the organist signalled again, and the same three members of the church council filed out to the Konsistorie, the deacon walking in front this time.
It was about then that the pastor of the Full Gospel Apostolic Faith Church, about whom Dominee Welthagen had in the past used language almost as strong as that he had used about the Pope, came up to the front gate of the church to see what was afoot. He lived near our church and, having heard the same hymn-tune being played over and over for about eight hours, he was a very amazed man. Then he saw the door of the Konsistorie open, and two elders and a deacon coming out, walking on tiptoe – they having apparently forgotten that they were not in the church just then. When the pastor saw one of the elders hiding a black bottle under his manel, a look of understanding came over his features. The pastor walked off, shaking his head.
At verse 152 the organist signalled again. This time Elder Landsman and the other elder went out alone. The deacon stayed behind in the deacon’s bench, apparently deep in thought. The organist signalled again, for the last time, at verse 169. So you can imagine how many visits the two elders made to the Konsistorie altogether.
Eventually the last verse came, and the last line of the last verse. This time it had to be Amen. Nothing could stop it.
I would rather not describe the state that the congregation was in. And by then the three convicts, red stripes and all, were – in the Bakhatla tongue – threatening mutiny.
‘Aa-m-e-e-n’ came from what sounded like less than a score of voices, hoarse with singing. The organ music died away.
Maybe it was the sudden silence that at last brought Dominee Welthagen out of his long trance. He raised his head, and looked slowly about him. His gaze travelled over the congregation; and then, looking at the window, he saw that it was night. We then understood right away what was going on in Dominee Welthagen’s mind. He thought he had just come into the pulpit, and that this was the beginning of the evening service. We realised that, during all the time we had been singing, the predikant had been in a state of unconsciousness.
Once again Dominee Welthagen took a firm grip on the pulpit rail. His head again started drooping forward onto his breast, but before he went into a trance for the second time, he gave the hymn for the evening service.
‘We will,’ announced Dominee Welthagen, ‘sing Psalm 119.’