From A Boer Rip Van Winkel
by Herman Charles Bosman
Every writer has got, lying around somewhere in a suitcase or a trunk, various parts of a story that he has worked on from time to time, and that he has never finished, because he hasn’t been able to find out how the theme should be handled. Such a story – that I’ve had lying in a suitcase for many years – centres around the things that happened to Herklaas van Wyk.
The plot of a story has no particular appeal for me. I feel that to sit down and work out a plot does not call for the highest form of literary inspiration. Rather does that form of activity recall the skill of the inventor.
My own stories that I like best are those that have just grown. Some mood, conjured up in half a dozen words, has set me going, and it has often happened to me that, only when I have got to very near the end in the writing of it, has the shape of the story suddenly dawned on me. And more than once I have been surprised to find what a very old tale it was that has kept me from the chimney corner. Agreeably surprised, that is, for I have a preference for old tales.
But my inability to finish writing the story of Herklaas van Wyk is not due to the denouement not having taken some recognisable form in my mind within the last few hundred words. It hasn’t been that kind of writer’s problem. I didn’t put my hand in the hat and a story came out that wouldn’t unfold. On the contrary, this story told itself quite all right, in all its main essentials. What is more, within the first few paragraphs, I realised very clearly to what general class of story it belonged. But there were so many hiatuses between the time when Herklaas van Wyk was last seen with the remnants of the Losberg commando, towards the end of the Boer War, in 1902, and the time when he was captured with General Kemp outside Upington in the rebellion of 1914.
If I could fill in that interval of a dozen years satisfactorily, I would still be able to write the story of Herklaas van Wyk. Yet the very fascination of this story is intimately bound up with the nature of that lacuna. It is no new thing to have a story of which the end is a mystery – something that the reader must work out for himself, with or without a clue supplied by the author. But when the middle part of a story – which gives atmosphere to the whole sequence of real and imaginery events – is missing, then I feel that I am confronted with an artistic problem of an order that I am not sure it is wise for a writer to tackle.
I don’t mind writing a story in which the plot is vague. But when the atmosphere isn’t there – the background and the psychology and the interplay of situation and character – then what’s left is not my idea of a story.
The events with which Herklaas van Wyk was connected in the early part of 1902 were commonplace enough. There are still a number of Boers alive today who were on commando with him. Kritzinger’s invasion of the Cape Colony is an episode that has passed into history. And a considerable body of Boers, members of commandos that kept being split up into ever-smaller groups, succeeded in penetrating to the Atlantic Ocean, and in remaining in the field, deep inside the Cape Colony, long after the main commando had retreated beyond the Vaal.
It was in 1902 that Herklaas van Wyk, then promoted to the rank of veldkornet, caught sight, in the blue distance, of the unquiet Atlantic. The small body of men pushed on to the beach. They had come a long way, from the Transvaal and the Free State, and also from the Karoo, where a number of Cape rebels had joined the fighting forces of the Republics. It was a mixed group of burghers that came to a halt on the white sand of the beach south of Okiep.
Facing out to sea, Herklaas van Wyk slowly took off his hat.
‘It’s no good, kêrels,’ he called out above the roar of the waves and the wind, ‘we’ll have to go back again. There’s no drift around here where we’ll be able to get our horses through.’
About Herklaas van Wyk there was a certain measure of grandeur, even in defeat.
And his story, up to that time when the sea-wind was whistling through his black beard, was straightforward enough. In fact, you can read about him in any history book dealing with that period. But it is on his way back to the Transvaal, when he and his men had to elude flying English columns and had to cross barbed-wire fences with blockhouses threaded on to them, that Herklaas van Wyk quits the pages of printed history, complete with dates and place-names, and enters the realm of legend.
It is generally accepted that he was still in the field when the Boer War ended in May 1902. His own storyis that he crept into a deserted rondavel at the foot of a koppie in the Upington District, and that he fell asleep there, with his Mauser beside him, and his horse tethered to a thorn-tree.
Another story – subscribed to on doubtful authority by fellow members of the rebel commando that surrendered with Herklaas van Wyk in 1915, after General Kemp had failed to take Upington – seeks to account for that interval of a dozen years in a different fashion. In terms of this latter attempt at reconstructing the facts, all that happened to Herklaas van Wyk between 1902, the end of the Boer War, and 1914, the year of the outbreak of the rebellion, was that he lived on some farm in the Upington District as a bywoner. It is readily conceivable, protagonists of this standpoint declare, that he slept quite a lot during that period, especially on hot afternoons when his employer had sent him out to look for strayed cattle. Who has not heard – this school of doubters asks – of a bywoner lying asleep in his rondavel when he should be at the borehole pumping water?
I can only reply that this theory, which represents him as a decadent bywoner, does not fit in with my conception of Herklaas van Wyk as a person.
I still prefer Herklaas van Wyk’s own story, which he told to anybody who would listen, after he had been captured by Botha’s Government forces. For one thing, if we accept Herklaas van Wyk’s account of his long sleep in the abandoned rondavel at the foot of a koppie in the Upington District, we have the material for a South African legend as stirring as the one that Washington Irving chronicled. This is surely no idle coincidence. Above all, there is a Gothic quality in Herklaas van Wyk’s own story – a gloomy magnificence that is never absent from the interior of a rondavel at the foot of a koppie, if that koppie is composed of ironstone.
Herklaas van Wyk asleep in a dark corner, waiting, a backveld Barbarossa, for his far-off awakening, in an hour filled with the thunder of horse-hooves and the noise of battle.
The old man with the white beard and the rusty Mauser and the walking skeleton of a horse had been with Kemp’s rebel commando for the best part of a week of dispirited running away from the Government forces. It now began to dawn on the little band of 1914 rebels that Oom Herklaas van Wyk was (as they interpreted it) in his second childhood. It was clear that he thought the year was 1902. It was obvious that he did not know that he was a rebel who had taken the field against the Union troops. Instead, he spoke of himself as a Transvaal burgher, and he referred to Cronjé’s surrender at Paardeberg scornfully, as though it had taken place yesterday.
He was very puzzled, also, when he learnt for the first time that the rebel commando was being pursued by a column of Botha-men.
‘But if Botha is chasing us,’ Herklaas van Wyk demanded, ‘who is fighting Kitchener?’
Thus it came about, one evening when the rebels were encamped in a bluegum plantation on the road to Upington, that a lot of explanations were made.
‘I remember the day you joined us, Oom Herklaas,’ Jan Gouws, a young rebel, said after Herklaas van Wyk had told his story and they had persuaded him that the year was, indeed, 1915, and that he was not now fighting in the Boer War. ‘Your white beard was blowing in the wind, Oom Herklaas, and several of us laughed at the awkward way your old horse cantered, throwing his legs all to one side. So you really say you slept for twelve years?’
‘I believe now – now that you’ve told me,’ Herklaas van Wyk replied, ‘that I must have lain asleep on the floor of that rondavel all those years. That must have been just at the end of the Boer War. And it’s funny that I didn’t wake up before my nation again needed me.’
The rebels received the old man’s last remark in silence. They were beginning to doubt the wisdom of their armed uprising. They had been driven from pillar to post for many days. Incessant rain had damped their ardour.
‘Did you remember to wind your watch before you went to sleep in that rondavel, Oom Herklaas?’ Jan Gouws asked, trying to change the subject.
The others did not laugh at this sally. For one thing, the rain had started coming down again.
Some of the rebels seemed half-inclined to believe Herklaas van Wyk’s story. And there seemed to be something inexplicably solemn in the thought of a burgher of the Transvaal Republic going to sleep in the corner of a deserted rondavel, with his Mauser at his side – and only waking up again a dozen years later, when men were once more riding with rifles slung across their shoulders.
‘Did you dream at all during that time, Oom Herklaas?’ another man asked, in a half-serious tone.
The old man thought for a little while.
‘I remember dreaming about a mossie settling on a coral tree that was full of red flowers,’ Herklaas van Wyk answered slowly, ‘but I think I dreamt of it a long time back – after I had been asleep only four years or so.’
Jan Gouws shivered. The red flowers on that coral tree must be pretty well faded by now, he thought. And it gave him a queer feeling to think of that mossie, that an old man saw in a dream, flitting about in the sunshine of long ago. It made Jan Gouws feel uncomfortable, for a reason he could not explain.
‘My Mauser is very rusty,’ Herklaas van Wyk continued. ‘I’ve tried oiling it, but that doesn’t help. I’ll have to hands-up or shoot one of the enemy, and take his Lee-Metford off him, like we used to do. How long will it take us to win this war, do you think?’
The rebels did not answer. They knew that their cause was already shot to pieces. In spite of the old man’s senility, there seemed to emanate from his spirit a strange kind of assurance, a form of steadfastness in the face of adversity and defeat, that they themselves did not possess. It seemed that there was something inside the entrails of this burgher of the Transvaal Republic that they didn’t have. Something firm and constant that they had lost. And they felt, sensing the difference between the previous generation and their own, without being able to express their feelings in words, that in that difference lay their defeat.
‘What happened about your horse, Oom Herklaas?’ a young rebel asked eventually.
Outwardly delapidated, Herklaas van Wyk still seemed to represent, somehow, the gloom and grandeur of a greater day.
‘I tethered my horse to a thorn-tree,’ Herklaas van Wyk said, ‘and he, too, must have fallen asleep. I’m sure that the hoof-beats of a commando at full gallop must have awakened him, also. For when I got to the thorn tree – which hadn’t grown much during that time: you know how slowly a thorn-tree grows – my old war horse was sniffing the wind and pawing the ground. And his neck was arched.’