It’s a queer thing – Oom Schalk Lourens observed – how much trouble people will take to hide their weaknesses from the world. Often, of course, they aren’t weaknesses at all; only the people who have these peculiarities don’t know that. Another thing they don’t know is that the world is aware all the time of these things they imagine they’re concealing.
I remember a story my grandfather used to tell – of something that happened when he was a boy. Of course, that was a long time ago. It was before the Great Trek. But it seems that, even in those days, there was a lot of trouble between the Boers and the English. It had much to do with slaves. The English Government wanted to free the slaves, my grandfather said, and one man who was very prominent at the meetings that were held to protest against this was Gert van Tonder.
Now Gert van Tonder was a very able man, and a good speaker. He was at his best, too, when dealing with a subject about which he knew nothing at all. He always spoke very loudly then. As you can see, he was a fine leader.
So, when the slaves were freed, and a manifesto was drawn up to be sent to the King of England, the farmers of Graaff-Reinet took it first to Gert van Tonder for his signature.
You can imagine how surprised everyone was when he refused to sign. He sat with the manifesto in front of him, and the pen in his hand, and said that he had changed his mind. He said that perhaps they were a bit hasty in writing to the King of England about so trivial a matter.
‘Even though the slaves are free, now,’ he said, ‘it doesn’t make any difference. Just let one of my slaves try to act as though he’s free. I’ll show him. That’s all. Just let him try.’
The farmers told Gert van Tonder he was quite right. It didn’t really make any difference whether the slaves were free or not. They said they knew that already. But there were a lot of other grievances in the manifesto, they explained, and they were sending it to let the King of England know that, unless the Boers got their wrongs redressed, they would trek out of the Cape Colony.
My grandfather used to say that everybody was still more surprised when Gert van Tonder put down the pen, very firmly, and told the farmers that they could trek right to the other end of Africa, for all he cared. He was quite satisfied with the way the King of England had done things, Gert said, and there was a lot about English rule for which they should all be thankful.
The upshot of all this was that, when the farmers of the Cape Colony trekked away, into the north, with their heavily laden wagons, and their long spans of oxen, and their guns, Gert van Tonder did not go with them.
My grandfather often spoke about how small a thing it was that kept Gert van Tonder from being remembered in history as one of the leaders of the nation. It was all on account of that one weakness of his – his not wanting people to know that he couldn’t read or write.
When I speak of people and their peculiarities, it always makes me think of Stoffel Lemmer. He had a weakness of an altogether different sort. What was peculiar about Stoffel Lemmer was that if a girl, or a woman, so much as looked at him, he was quite certain that she was in love with him. And what made it worse was that he never had the courage to go up and talk to the girl he thought was making eyes at him.
Another queer thing about Stoffel Lemmer was that he was just as much in love with the girl as he imagined she was with him.
‘I could see by the look in Minnie Bonthuys’s eyes that she loved me, Oom Schalk,’ Stoffel Lemmer went on, once, ‘and by the firm way that her mouth shut when she caught sight of me. In fact, I can hardly even say that she looked at me. It all happened so quickly. She just gave one glance in my direction, and slammed the window shut. All girls who are in love with me do that.’
This was just one example of the sort of thing that Stoffel Lemmer would relate to me, sitting on my stoep. Mostly it was in the evening. And he would look out into the dusk, and say that the shadows that lay on the thorn-trees were in his heart also. As I have told you, I had frequently heard him say exactly the same thing. About other girls.
And always it would end up the same way – with him saying what a sorrowful thing it was that he would never be able to tell her how much he loved her. He would also say how grateful he was to have someone like me who would listen to his sad story, with understanding. That, too, I had heard before. Often.
What’s that? Did he ever tell her? Well, I don’t know.
The last time I saw Stoffel Lemmer was in Zeerust. It was in front of the church, just after the ceremony. And by the determined expression that Minnie still had on her face when the wedding guests threw rice and confetti over Stoffel and herself – no, I don’t think he ever got up the courage to tell her.