Marie du Preez – Oom Schalk Lourens said – had not been away from the Marico for very long, but her overseas visit had made her restive.
That, of course, was something I could not understand. I had also been to foreign parts. During the Boer War I had been a prisoner on St Helena. And twice I had been in Johannesburg.
One thing about St Helena was that there were no Uitlanders on it. There were just Boers and English and Coloureds and Indians, like you come across here in the Marico. There were none of those all-sorts that you’ve got to push past on Johannesburg pavements.
And each time I got back to my own farm, and I could sit on my stoep and fill my pipe with honest Magaliesberg tobacco, I was pleased to think that I was away from all that sin that you read about in the Bible.
But with Marie du Preez it was different.
Marie du Preez, after she came back from Europe, spoke a great deal about how unhappy a person with a sensitive nature could be about certain aspects of life in the Marico.
We were not unwilling to agree with her.
‘When I woke up that morning at Nietverdiend,’ Willie Prinsloo said to Marie during a party at the Du Preez homestead, ‘and I found that I couldn’t inspan my oxen because my trek-chain had been stolen – well, to a person with a sensitive nature, I can tell you how unhappy I felt about the Marico.’
Marie said that that was the sort of thing that made her ill, almost.
Shortly afterwards Marie du Preez made a remark that hurt me, a little.
‘People here in the Marico say all the same things, over and over again,’ Marie announced. ‘Nobody ever says anything new. You all talk just like the people in Oom Schalk Lourens’s stories. Whenever we have visitors, it’s always the same thing. If it’s a husband and wife, the man will always start talking first. And he’ll say that his Afrikaner cattle are in a bad way with the heart-water. Even though he drives his cattle straight out onto the veld with the first frost, and even though he keeps to regular seven-day dipping, he just can’t get rid of the heart-water ticks.’
Marie du Preez paused. None of us said anything, at first. I only know what I was thinking: I thought to myself that, even though I only dip my cattle when the Government inspector from Onderstepoort is in the neighbourhood, still I lose just as many Afrikaner beasts from the heart-water as any of the farmers hereabouts who go in for the seven-day dipping.
‘They should dip the Onderstepoort inspector every seven days,’ Jurie Bekker called out suddenly, expressing all of our feelings.
‘And they should drive the Onderstepoort inspector straight out into the veld with the first frost,’ Willie Prinsloo added.
We got pretty well worked up, I can tell you.
‘And it’s the same with the women,’ Marie du Preez went on. ‘Do they ever discuss books or fashion or music? No. They also talk just like those simple Boer women that Oom Schalk Lourens’s head is so full of. They talk about the amount of Kalahari sand that the Indian in the store at Ramoutsa mixed with the last bag of yellow sugar they bought from him. You know, I’ve heard the same thing so often, I’m surprised there’s any sand at all left in the Kalahari desert, the way that Indian uses it all up.’
Those of us who were in the Du Preez voorkamer that evening, in spite of our amusement, also felt sad at the thought of how Marie du Preez had changed from her old natural self, like a seedling that has been transplanted too often in different kinds of soil.
‘One thing I’m glad about, though,’ Marie said after a pause, ‘is that since my return from Europe I’ve not yet come across a Marico girl who wears a selons-rose in her hair to make herself look more attractive to a young man – as happens, time after time, in Oom Schalk’s stories.’
This remark of Marie’s gave a new turn to the conversation, and I felt relieved. For a moment I had feared that Marie du Preez was also becoming addicted to the kind of Bushveld conversation she complained about, and that she, too, was beginning to say the same thing over and over again.
Several women started talking, after that, about how hard it was to get flowers to grow in the Marico, on account of the prolonged droughts. The most they could hope for was to keep a bush of selons-roses alive near the kitchen door. It was a flower that seemed, if anything, to thrive on harsh sunlight, soapy dish-water and Marico earth, the women said.
Some time later Theunis du Preez engaged a young fellow, Joachem Bonthuys, to come and work on his farm as a bywoner. Joachem was a nephew of Philippus Bonthuys, and I was at the post office when he arrived at Drogedal, on the lorry from Zeerust – with Theunis du Preez and his daughter, Marie, there to meet him.
Joachem Bonthuys’s appearance was not very prepossessing, I thought. He shook hands somewhat awkwardly with the farmers who had come to meet the lorry to collect their milk-cans. Joachem did not seem to have much to say for himself, either, until Theunis du Preez, his new employer, asked him what his journey up from Zeerust had been like.
‘The veld is dry all the way,’ he replied. ‘And I’ve never seen so much heart-water in the Afrikaner herds. They should dip their cattle every seven days,’ he said.
Joachem Bonthuys spoke at great length, then, and I could not help smiling to myself when I saw Marie du Preez turn away. In that moment, my feelings grew warmer towards Joachem. I felt that, at all events, he was not the kind of young man who would go and sing foreign songs under a respectable Boer girl’s window.
All this brings me back to what I was saying about an old song and an old story. For it was quite a while before I again had occasion to visit the Du Preez farm. And when I sat smoking on the stoep with Theunis du Preez, it was just like an old story, hearing him talk about his rheumatism.
Marie came out onto the stoep with a tray to bring us our coffee. – Yes, you’ve heard all that before, the same sort of thing. The same stoep. The same tray. – And for that reason, when she held out the glass bowl towards me, Marie du Preez apologised about the yellow sugar.
‘It’s full of Kalahari sand, Oom Schalk,’ she said. ‘It’s that Indian at Ramoutsa.’
And when she turned to go back into the kitchen, leaving two old men to their stories, it was not difficult for me to guess who the young man was for whom she was wearing a half-red flower in her hair.