We did not like the sound of the wind that morning, as we cantered over a veld trail we had made much use of during the past year, when there were English forces in the neighbourhood.
The wind blew short wisps of yellow grass in quick flurries over the veld, and the smoke from a fire in front of a row of huts hung low in the air. From this we knew that the third winter of the Anglo-Boer War was approaching. We dismounted at the edge of a clump of camel-thorns, to rest our horses.
Our thoughts went immediately to Leendert Roux, who had been with us on commando for a long while, and who had been spoken of as a man likely to become a veldkornet. He had gone out scouting one night, and had never returned.
There were, of course, other Boers who had also joined the English. But none that we had respected as much as Leendert Roux.
Soon our small group of burghers was on the move again.
In the late afternoon we emerged through the Crocodile Poort that brought us in sight of Leendert Roux’s farmhouse. Next to the dam was a patch of mealies that Leendert Roux’s wife had asked the labourers to cultivate.
‘We’ll camp on Leendert Roux’s farm, and eat roast mealies tonight,’ our veldkornet, Apie Theron, observed.
The road we were following led past Leendert Roux’s homestead. The noise of our horses’ hoofs brought Leendert Roux’s wife, Serfina, to the door. She stood in the open doorway, watching us ride by. Serfina was pretty, taller than most women, and slender. There was no expression in her eyes that you could read, and her face was very white.
It was strange, I thought, as we rode past the homestead, that the sight of Serfina Roux did not fill us with bitterness.
Jurie Bekker said that something about Serfina Roux reminded him of the Transvaal. He said he didn’t know what it was, but with the wind of early winter fluttering her dress about her ankles, that was how it seemed to him.
Kobus Ferreira then said that he had wanted to shout out something to her when we rode past the door, to let Serfina know how we, who were fighting in the last ditch, and in ragged clothing, felt about the wife of a traitor. ‘But she stood there so still,’ Kobus Ferreira said, ‘I couldn’t say anything.’
Then a remark by Jan Vermeulen reminded us that there was a war on. He had taken the mealie sack off his body and threaded a length of baling-wire above the places where the holes were. He was now restoring the grain bag to the use it had been intended for, and I suppose that, in consequence, his views also became more sensible.
‘Just because Serfina Roux is pretty,’ Jan Vermeulen said, flinging mealie heads into the sack, ‘let us not forget who she is. Perhaps it is not safe for us to camp on this farm tonight. She’s sure to be in touch with the English. She may tell them where we are, especially now that we’ve taken her mealies.’
But our veldkornet said that it wasn’t important if the English knew where we were. Any person in the neighbourhood could go and report our position to them. What mattered was that we should know where the English were. And he reminded us that, in two years, he had never made a serious mistake in that regard.
‘What about the affair at the spruit, though?’ Jan Vermeulen asked him. ‘My pipe and tinder-box were in the jacket I had to leave behind there, too.’
By sunset the wind had died down, but there was a chill in the air. We had pitched our camp in the tamboekie grass on the far side of Leendert Roux’s farm. And I was glad, lying in my blankets, to think that it was the turn of the veldkornet and Jurie Bekker to stand guard.
Far away a jackal howled. Then there was silence. A little later the stillness was disturbed by sterner sounds of the veld at night. They did not come from very far away, either. They were the sounds made by Jurie Bekker, first when he fell over a beacon, and then when he gave his opinion of Leendert Roux for placing a beacon in the middle of a stretch of dubbeltjie thorns. The blankets felt very snug, pulled over my shoulders, when I reflected on those thorns.
And because I was young, there came into my thoughts, at Jurie Bekker’s mention of Leendert Roux, the picture of Serfina as she had stood in front of her doorway.
The dream I had of Serfina Roux that night was that she came to me, tall and graceful, beside a white beacon on her husband’s farm. It was that haunting kind of dream, in which you half-know all the time that you are dreaming. And she was very beautiful in my dream. And it was as though her hair was hanging half out of my dream and reaching down into the wind when she came closer to me. And I knew what she wanted to tell me. But I did not wish to hear it. I knew that if Serfina spoke that thing, I would wake up from my dream. And in that moment, as always happens in a dream, Serfina spoke.
‘Opskud, kêrels!’ I heard.
But it was not Serfina who gave that command. It was Apie Theron, the veldkornet. He came running into the camp with his rifle at the trail. Serfina was gone, and in a few minutes we had saddled our horses and were ready to gallop away. Many times during the past couple of years, our scouts had roused us thus – when an English column was approaching.
We were already in the saddle when Apie Theron let us know what was afoot. He had received information, he said, that Leendert Roux had that very night ventured back to his homestead. If we hurried, we might trap him in his own house. The veldkornet warned us to take no chances, reminding us that when Leendert Roux had stood on our side, he had been a fearless and resourceful fighter.
So we rode back during the night along the same way we had come in the afternoon. We tethered our horses in a clump of trees near the mealie-lands, and started to surround the farmhouse. When we saw a figure running for the stable at the side of the house, we realised that Leendert Roux had been almost too quick for us.
In the cold, thin breeze that springs up just before dawn, we surprised Leendert Roux at the door of his stable. But when he made no resistance, it almost seemed as though Leendert Roux had taken us by surprise. Leendert Roux’s calm acceptance of his fate made it seem, almost, as though he had never turned traitor, but that he was laying down his life for the Transvaal.
In answer to the veldkornet’s question, Leendert Roux said that he would be glad if we would read Psalm 110 over his grave. He also said that he did not want his eyes bandaged. And he asked to be allowed to say goodbye to his wife.
Serfina was sent for. At the side of the stable, in the early morning breeze, Leendert and Serfina Roux, husband and wife, bade each other farewell.
Serfina looked even more shadowy than she had done in my dream when she set off back to the homestead, along the footpath through the thorns. The sun was just beginning to rise. And I understood how right Jurie Bekker had been when he had said that she was just like the Transvaal, with the dawn breeze fluttering her skirts about her ankles as it rippled the grass. And I remembered that it was the Boer women who kept on when their menfolk had recoiled before the steepness of the Drakensberg, and spoken of turning back.
I also thought of how strange it was that Serfina should have come walking over to our camp, in the middle of the night, just as she had done in my dream. But where my dream was different was that she had reported, not to me, but to our veldkornet, the whereabouts of Leendert Roux.