The Wife of the Kenite
Herr Schaefer removed his hat and wiped his perspiring brow. He was hot. He was hungry and thirsty—especially the latter. But, above all, he was anxious. Before him stretched the yellow expanse of the veldt. Behind him, the line of the horizon was broken by the ‘dumps’ of the outlying portion of the Reef. And from far away, in the direction of Johannesburg, came a sound like distant thunder. But it was not thunder, as Herr Schaefer knew only too well. It was monotonous and regular, and represented the triumph of law and order over the forces of Revolution.
Incidentally, it was having a most wearing effect on the nerves of Herr Schaefer. The position in which he found himself was an unpleasant one. The swift efficient proclamation of martial law, followed by the dramatic arrival of Smuts with the tyres of his car shot flat, had had the effect of completely disorganising the carefully laid plans of Schaefer and his friends, and Schaefer himself had narrowly escaped being laid by the heels. For the moment he was at large, but the present was uncomfortable, and the future too problematical to be pleasant.
In good, sound German, Herr Schaefer cursed the country, the climate, the Rand and all workers thereon, and most especially his late employers, the Reds. As a paid agitator, he had done his work with true German efficiency, but his military upbringing, and his years of service with the German Army in Belgium, led him to admire the forcefulness of Smuts, and to despise unfeignedly the untrained rabble, devoid of discipline, which had crumbled to pieces at the first real test.
‘They are scum,’ said Herr Schaefer, gloomily, moistening his cracked lips. ‘Swine! No drilling. No order. No discipline. Ragged commandos riding loose about the veldt! Ah! If they had but one Prussian drill sergeant!’
Involuntarily his back straightened. For a year he had been endeavouring to cultivate a slouch which, together with a ragged beard, might make his apparent dealing in such innocent vegetable produce as cabbages, cauliflowers, and potatoes less open to doubt. A momentary shiver went down his spine as he reflected that certain papers might even now be in the hands of the military—papers whereon the word ‘cabbage’ stood opposite ‘dynamite’, and potatoes were labelled ‘detonators’.
The sun was nearing the horizon. Soon the cool of the evening would set in. If he could only reach a friendly farm (there were one or two hereabouts, he knew), he would find shelter for the night, and explicit directions that might set him on the road to freedom on the morrow.
Suddenly his eyes narrowed appreciatively upon a point to his extreme left.
‘Mealies!’ said Herr Schaefer. ‘Where there are mealies there is a farm not far off.’
His reasoning proved correct. A rough track led through the cultivated belt of land. He came first to a cluster of kraals, avoided them dextrously (since he had no wish to be seen if the farm should not prove to be one of those he sought), and skirting a slight rise, came suddenly upon the farm itself. It was the usual low building, with a corrugated roof, and a stoep running round two sides of it.
The sun was setting now, a red, angry blur on the horizon, and a woman was standing in the open doorway, looking out into the falling dusk. Herr Schaefer pulled his hat well over his eyes and came up the steps.
‘Is this by any chance the farm of Mr Henshel?’ he asked.
The woman nodded without speaking, staring at him with wide blue eyes. Schaefer drew a deep breath of relief, and looked back at her with a measure of appreciation. He admired the Dutch, wide-bosomed type such as this. A grand creature, with her full breast and her wide hips; not young, nearer forty than thirty, fair hair just touched with grey parted simply in the middle of her wide forehead, something grand and forceful about her, like a patriarch’s wife of old.
‘A fine mother of sons,’ thought Herr Schaefer appreciatively. ‘Also, let us hope, a good cook!’
His requirements of women were primitive and simple.
‘Mr Henshel expects me, I think,’ said the German, and added in a slightly lower tone: ‘I am interested in potatoes.’
She gave the expected reply.
‘We, too, are cultivators of vegetables.’ She spoke the words correctly, but with a strong accent. Her English was evidently not her strong point and Schaefer put her down as belonging to one of those Dutch Nationalist families who forbid their children to use the interloper’s tongue. With a big, work-stained hand, she pointed behind him.
‘You come from Jo’burg—yes?’
‘Things are finished there. I escaped by the skin of my teeth. Then I lost myself on the veldt. It is pure chance that I found my way here.’
The Dutch woman shook her head. A strange ecstatic smile irradiated her broad features.
‘There is no chance—only God. Enter, then.’
Approving her sentiments, for Herr Schaefer liked a woman to be religious, he crossed the threshold. She drew back to let him pass, the smile still lingering on her face, and just for a moment the thought that there was something here he did not quite understand flashed across Herr Schaefer’s mind. He dismissed the idea as of little importance.
The house was built, like most, in the form of an H. The inner hall, from which rooms opened out all round, was pleasantly cool. The table was spread in preparation for a meal. The woman showed him to a bedroom, and on his return to the hall, when he had removed the boots from his aching feet, he found Henshel awaiting him. An Englishman, this, with a mean, vacuous face, a little rat of a fellow drunk with catchwords and phrases. It was amongst such as he that most of Schaefer’s work had lain, and he knew the type well. Abuse of capitalists, of the ‘rich who batten on the poor’, the iniquities of the Chamber of Mines, the heroic endurance of the miners—these were the topics on which Henshel expatiated, Schaefer nodding wearily with his mind fixed solely on food and drink.
At last the woman appeared, bearing a steaming tureen of soup. They sat down together and fell to. It was good soup. Henshel continued to talk; his wife was silent. Schaefer contented himself with monosyllables and appropriate grunts. When Mrs Henshel left the room to bring in the next course, he said appreciatively: ‘Your wife is a good cook. You are lucky. Not all Dutch women cook well.’
Henshel stared at him.
‘My wife is not Dutch.’
Schaefer looked his astonishment, but the shortness of Henshel’s tone, and some unacknowledged uneasiness in himself forbade him asking further. It was odd, though. He had been so sure that she was Dutch.
After the meal, he sat on the stoep in the cool dusk smoking. Somewhere in the house behind him a door banged. It was followed by the noise of a horse’s hoofs. Vaguely uneasy, he sat forward listening as they grew fainter in the distance, then started violently to find Mrs Henshel standing at his elbow with a steaming cup of coffee. She set it down on a little table beside him.
‘My husband has ridden over to Cloete’s—to make the arrangements for getting you away in the morning,’ she explained.
‘Oh! I see.’
Curious, how his uneasiness persisted.
‘When will he be back?’
‘Some time after midnight.’
His uneasiness was not allayed. Yet what was it that he feared? Surely not that Henshel would give him up to the police? No, the man was sincere enough—a red-hot Revolutionist. The fact of the matter was that he, Conrad Schaefer, had got nerves! A German soldier (Schaefer unconsciously always thought of himself as a soldier) had no business with nerves. He took up the cup beside him and drank it down, making a grimace as he did so. What filthy stuff this Boer coffee always was! Roasted acorns! He was sure of it—roasted acorns!
He put the cup down again, and as he did so, a deep sigh came from the woman standing by his side. He had almost forgotten her presence.
‘Will you not sit down?’ he asked, making no motion, however, to rise from his own seat.
She shook her head.
‘I have to clear away, and wash the dishes, and make my house straight.’
Schaefer nodded an approving head.
‘The children are already in bed, I suppose,’ he said genially.
There was a pause before she answered.
‘I have no children.’
Schaefer was surprised. From the first moment he saw her he had definitely associated her with motherhood.
She took up the cup and walked to the entrance door with it. Then she spoke over her shoulder.
‘I had one child. It died . . .’
‘Ach! I am sorry,’ said Schaefer, kindly.
The woman did not answer. She stood there motionless. And suddenly Schaefer’s uneasiness returned a hundred-fold. Only this time, he connected it definitely—not with the house, not with Henshel, but with this slow-moving, grandly fashioned woman—this wife of Henshel’s who was neither English nor Dutch. His curiosity roused afresh, he asked her the question point blank. What nationality was she?
She said the word abruptly, then passed into the house, leaving Herr Schaefer disturbed and upset.
Flemish! That was it, was it? Flemish! His mind flew swiftly to and fro, from the mud flats of Belgium to the sun-baked plateaus of South Africa. Flemish! He didn’t like it. Both the French and the Belgians were so extraordinarily unreasonable! They couldn’t forget.
His mind felt curiously confused. He yawned two or three times, wide, gaping yawns. He must get to bed and sleep—sleep—. Pah! How bitter that coffee had been—he could taste it still.
A light sprang up in the house. He got up and made his way to the door. His legs felt curiously unsteady. Inside, the big woman was sitting reading by the light of a small oil lamp. Herr Schaefer felt strangely reassured at the sight of the heavy volume on her knee. The Bible! He approved of women reading the Bible. He was a religious man himself, with a thorough belief in the German God, the God of the Old Testament, a God of blood and battles, of thunder and lightning, of material rewards and dire material vengeance, swift to anger and terrible in wrath.
He stumbled to a chair (what was the matter with his legs?); and in a thick, strange voice, suppressing another terrific yawn, he asked her what chapter she was reading.
Her blue eyes, under their level brows met his, something inscrutable in their depths. So might have looked a prophetess of Israel.
‘The fourth chapter of Judges.’
He nodded, yawning again. He must go to bed . . . but the effort to rise was too much for him . . . his eyelids closed . . .
‘The fourth chapter of Judges.’ What was the fourth chapter of Judges? His uneasiness returned, swelled into terror. Something was wrong . . . Judges . . . Sleep overcame him. He went down into the depths—and horror went with him . . .
He awoke, dragging himself back to consciousness . . . Time had passed—much time, he felt certain of it. Where was he? He blinked up at the light—there were pains in his arms and legs . . . he felt sick . . . the taste of the coffee was still in his mouth . . . But what was this? He was lying on the floor, bound hand and foot with strips of towel, and standing over him was the sinister figure of the woman who was not Dutch. His wits came back to him in a flash of sheer desperate fear. He was in danger . . . great danger . . .
She marked the growth of consciousness in his eyes, and answered it as though he had actually spoken.
‘Yes, I will tell you now. You remember passing through a place called Voogplaat, in Belgium?’
He recalled the name. Some twopenny-ha’penny village he had passed through with his regiment.
She nodded, and went on.
‘You came to my door with some other soldiers. My man was away with the Belgian Army. My first man—not Henshel, I have only been married to him two years. The boy, my little one—he was only four years of age—ran out. He began to cry—what child would not? He feared the soldiers. You ordered him to stop. He could not. You seized a chopper—ah God!—and struck off his hand! You laughed, and said: “That hand will never wield a weapon against Germany.”’
‘It is not true,’ cried Schaefer, shrilly, ‘And even if it was—it was war!’
She paid no heed, but went on.
‘I struck you in the face. What mother would not have done otherwise? You caught up the child . . . and dashed him against the wall . . .’
She stopped, her voice broken, her breast heaving . . .
Schaefer murmured feebly, abandoning the idea of denial.
‘It was war . . . it was war . . .’
The sweat stood on his brow. He was alone with this woman, miles from help . . .
‘I recognised you at once this afternoon in spite of your beard. You did not recognise me. You said it was chance led you here—but I knew it was God . . .’
Her bosom heaved, her eyes flashed with a fanatical light. Her God was Schaefer’s God—a God of vengeance. She was uplifted by the strange, stern frenzy of a Priestess of old.
‘He has delivered you into my hands.’
Wild words poured from Schaefer, arguments, prayers, appeals for mercy, threats. And all left her untouched.
‘God sent me another sign. When I opened the Bible tonight, I saw what He would have me do. Blessed above women shall Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, be . . .’
She stooped and took from the floor a hammer and some long, shining nails . . . A scream burst from Schaefer’s throat. He remembered now the fourth chapter of Judges, that dramatic story of black inhospitality! Sisera fleeing from his enemies . . . a woman standing at the door of a tent . . . Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite . . .
And sonorously, in her deep voice with the broad Flemish accent, her eyes shining as the Israelite woman’s may have shone in bygone days, she spoke the words of triumph:
‘This is the day in which the Lord hath delivered mine enemy into my hand . . .’