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- Jess - 30/58 -
They sat in silence: John puffing away at his pipe, and Jess, her work --one of his socks--lying idly upon her knees, her hands clasped over it, and her eyes fixed upon the lights and shadows that played with broad fingers upon the wooded slopes beyond.
So silently did they sit that a great green lizard came and basked himself in the sun within a yard of them, and a beautiful striped butterfly perched deliberately upon the purple grapes! It was a delightful day and a delightful spot. They were too far from the camp to be disturbed by its rude noise, and the only sounds that reached their ears were the rippling of running water and the whispers of the wind, odorous with the breath of mimosa blooms, as it stirred the stiff grey leaves on the blue gums.
They were seated in the shade of the little house that Jess had learned to love as she had never loved a spot before, but around them lay the flood of sunshine shimmering like golden water; and beyond the red line of the fence at the end of the garden, where the rich pomegranate bloom tried to blush the roses down, the hot air danced merrily above the rough stone wall like a million microscopic elves at play. Peace! everywhere was peace! and in it the full heart of Nature beat out in radiant life. Peace in the voice of the turtle-doves among the willows! peace in the play of the sunshine and the murmur of the wind! peace in the growing flowers and hovering butterfly! Jess looked out at the wealth and glory which were spread before her, and thought that it was like heaven; then, giving way to the melancholy strain in her nature, she began to wonder idly how many human beings had sat and thought the same things, and had been gathered up into the azure of the past and forgotten; and how many would sit and think there when she in her turn had been utterly swept away into that gulf whence no echo ever comes! But what did it matter? The sunshine would still flood the earth with gold, the water would ripple, and the butterflies hover; and there would be other women to sit and fold their hands and consider them, thinking the same identical thoughts, beyond which our human intelligence cannot travel. And so on for thousands upon thousands of centuries, till at last the old world reaches its journey's appointed end, and, passing from the starry spaces, is swallowed up with those it bore.
And she--where would she be? Would she still live on, and love and suffer elsewhere, or was it all a cruel myth? Was she merely a creature bred of the teeming earth, or had she an individuality beyond the earth? What awaited her after sunset?--Sleep. She had often hoped that it was sleep, and nothing but sleep. But now she did not hope that. Her life had centred itself around a new interest, and one that she felt could never die while that life lasted. She hoped for a future now; for if there was a future for her, there would be one for /him/, and then her day would come, and where he was there she would be also. Oh, sweet mockery, old and unsubstantial thought, bright dream set halowise about the dull head of life! Who has not dream it, but who can believe in it? And yet, who shall say that it is not true? Though philosophers and scientists smile and point in derision to the gross facts and freaks that mark our passions, is it not possible that there may be a place where the love shall live when the lust has died; and where Jess will find that she has not sat in vain in the sunshine, throwing out her pure heart towards the light of a happiness and a visioned glory whereof, for some few minutes, the shadow seemed to lie within her?
John had finished his pipe, and, although she did not know it, was watching her face, which, now when she was off her guard, was no longer impassive, but seemed to mirror the tender and glorious hope that was floating through her mind. Her lips were slightly parted, and her wide eyes were full of a soft strange light, while on the whole countenance was stamped a look of eager thought and spiritualised desire such as he had known portrayed in ancient masterpieces upon the face of the Virgin Mother. Except as regards her eyes and hair, Jess was not even a good-looking person. But, at that moment, John thought that her face was touched with a diviner beauty than he had yet seen on the face of woman. It thrilled him and appealed to him, not as Bessie's beauty had appealed, but to that other side of his nature, of which Jess alone could turn the key. It was more like the face of a spirit than that of a human being, and it almost frightened him to see it.
"Jess," he said at last, "what are you thinking of?"
She started, and her face resumed its normal expression. It was as though a mask had been suddenly set upon it.
"Why do you ask?" she said.
"Because I want to know. I never saw you look like that before."
She laughed a little.
"You would call me foolish if I told you what I was thinking about. Never mind, it has gone wherever thoughts go. I will tell you what I am thinking about now, which is--that it is about time we got out of this place. My uncle and Bessie must be half distracted."
"We've had more than two months of it now. The relieving column can't be far off," suggested John; for these foolish people in Pretoria laboured under a firm belief that one fine morning they would be gratified with a vision of the light dancing down a long line of British bayonets, and of Boers evaporating in every direction like storm clouds before the sun.
Jess shook her head. She was beginning to lose faith in relieving columns that never came.
"If we don't help ourselves, my opinion is that we may stop here till we are starved out, which in fact we are. However, it's no use talking about it, so I'm off to fetch our rations. Let's see, have you everything you want?"
"Well, then, mind you stop quiet till I come back."
"Why," laughed John, "I am as strong as a horse."
"Possibly; but that is what the doctor said, you know. Good-bye!" and Jess took her big basket and started on what John used feebly to call her "rational undertaking."
She had not gone fifty paces from the door before she suddenly caught sight of a familiar form seated on a familiar pony. The form was fat and jovial-looking, and the pony was small but also fat. It was Hans Coetzee--none other!
Jess could hardly believe her eyes. Old Hans in Pretoria! What could it mean?
"/Oom/ Coetzee! /Oom/ Coetzee!" she called, as he came ambling past her, evidently heading for the Heidelberg road.
The old Boer pulled up his pony, and gazed around him in a mystified fashion.
"Here, /Oom/ Coetzee! Here!"
"/Allemachter!/" he said, jerking his pony round. "It's you, Missie Jess, is it? Now who would have thought of seeing you here?"
"Who would have thought of seeing /you/ here?" she answered.
"Yes, yes; it seems strange; I dare say that it seems strange. But I am a messenger of peace, like Uncle Noah's dove in the ark, you know. The fact is," and he glanced round to see if anybody was listening, "I have been sent by the Government to arrange about an exchange of prisoners."
"The Government! What Government?"
"What Government? Why, the Triumvirate, of course--whom may the Lord bless and prosper, as He did Jonah when he walked on the wall of the city."
"Joshua, when he walked round the wall of the city," suggested Jess. "Jonah walked down the whale's throat."
"Ah! to be sure, so he did, and blew a trumpet inside. I remember now; though I am sure I don't know how he did it. The fact is that our glorious victories have quite confused me. Ah! what a thing it is to be a patriot! The dear Lord makes strong the arm of the patriot, and takes care that he hits his man well in the middle."
"You have turned wonderfully patriotic all of a sudden, /Oom/ Coetzee," said Jess tartly.
"Yes, missie, yes; I am a patriot to the bone of my back! I hate the English Government; damn the English Government! Let us have our land back and our /Volksraad/. Almighty! I saw who was in the right at Laing's Nek there. Ah, those poor /rooibaatjes!/ I killed four of them myself; two as they came up, and two as they ran away, and the last one went head-over-heels like a buck. Poor man! I cried for him afterwards. I did not like going to fight at all, but Frank Muller sent to me and said that if I did not go he would have me shot. Ah, he is a devil of a man, that Frank Muller! So I went, and when I saw how the dear Lord had put it into the heart of the English general to be a bigger fool even that day than he is every day, and to try and drive us out of Laing's Nek with a thousand of his poor /rooibaatjes/, then, I tell you, I saw where the right lay, and I said, 'Damn the English Government! What is the English Government doing here?' and after Ingogo I said it again."
"Never mind all that, /Oom/ Coetzee," broke in Jess. "I have heard you tell a different tale before, and perhaps you will again. How are my uncle and my sister? Are they at the farm?"
"Almighty! you don't suppose that I have been there to see, do you? But, yes, I have heard they are there. It is a nice place, that Mooifontein, and I think that I shall buy it when we have turned all you English people out of the land. Frank Muller told me that they were there. And now I must be getting on, or that devil of a man, Frank Muller, will want to know what I have been about."
"/Oom/ Coetzee," said Jess, "will you do something for me? We are old friends, you know, and once I persuaded my uncle to lend you five hundred pounds when all your oxen died of the lungsick."
"Yes, yes, it shall be paid back one day--when we have hunted the damned Englishmen out of the country." And he began to gather up his reins preparatory to riding off.
"Will you do me a favour?" said Jess, catching the pony by the bridle.
"What is it? What is it, missie? I must be getting on. That devil of a man, Frank Muller, is waiting for me with the prisoners at the
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