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Perceval Gibbon
Flower o' the Peach

Flower o' the Peach
Perceval Gibbon

Perceval Gibbon

Flower o' the Peach

"Flower o' the peach,
Death for us all and his own life for each."

    Fra Lippo Lippi.

CHAPTER I

It was late in the afternoon when the sheep moved off, and the west was full of the sunset. They flowed out from the cactus-ringed fold like a broadening trickle of milk, with their mild idiot faces set southwards towards the sparse pastures beyond the horizon, and the dust from their feet hung over them in a haze of soft bronze. Half-way along the path between the house and the dam, Paul turned to watch their departure, dwelling with parted lips on the picture they made as they drifted forth to join themselves with earth and sky in a single mellowness of hue.

The little farmhouse with its outbuildings, and the one other house that reared its steep roof within eyeshot of the farm, were behind him as he stood; nothing interrupted the suave level of the miles stretching forth, like a sluggish sea, to the sky-line. In its sunset mood, its barren brown, the universal tint into which its poor scrub faded and was lost to the eye, was touched to warmth and softened; it was a wilderness with a soul. The tall boy, who knew it in all its aspects for a neighbor, stood gazing absorbed as the sheep came to a pause, with the lean, smooth-coated dog at their heels, and waited for the shepherd who was to drive them through the night. He was nearing seventeen years of age, and the whole of those years had been spent on the Karoo, in the native land of dreams. The glamour of it was on his face, where the soft childish curves were not yet broken into angles, and in his gaze, as his steady unconscious eyes pored on the distance, deep with foreknowledge of the coming of the night.

"Baas!"

Paul closed his lips and turned absently. The old black shepherd was eager to linger out a minute or two in talk before he went forth to his night-long solitude. He stood, a bundle of shabby clothes, with his strong old face seamed with gray lines and the corners of the eyes bunched into puckers, waiting in the hope that the young baas might be tempted into conversation. He carried a little armory of smooth, wire-bound sticks, his equipment against all the perils of the unknown, and smiled wistfully, ingratiatingly, up into Paul's face.

"Well?" said the boy.

It all depended on the beginning, for if he should merely nod and turn away there would be nothing left but to follow the sheep out to the silence. The old man eyed him warily.

"Has the baas heard," he asked, "that there is a mad Kafir in the veld?"

"No," said Paul. "A mad Kafir?"

The old man nodded half a dozen times. "There is such a one," he affirmed. The thing was done; the boy would listen, and he let his sticks fall at his feet that he might have two hands to talk with. They were speaking "Kitchen Kafir," the lingua franca of the Cape, and since that is a sterile and colorless tongue – the embalmed corpse of the sonorous native speech – the tale would need pantomime to do it justice.

"There is such a one," repeated the shepherd. "He goes about alone, in the day and in the night, talking as he goes to companions who are not there, and laughing sometimes as though they had answered him. And that is very strange."

"Yes," said the boy slowly. His eyes traveled involuntarily to the veld brooding under the sky. "Who has seen him?" he asked.

"I have," said the shepherd, putting a big black forefinger to his own breast. "I have seen him." He held out his great hand before him, with the fingers splayed, and counted on them. "Four nights ago I saw him when the moon was rising."

"And he was mad?"

"Mad as a sheep."

Paul waited for the tale. The old man had touched his interest with the skill of a clever servant practising upon a master. A hint of mystery, of things living under the inscrutable mask of the veld, could not fail to hold him. He watched the shepherd with a kind of grave intensity as he gathered himself to tell the matter.

"The moon was rising," he said, "and it lay low above the earth, making long shadows of the stones and little bushes. The sheep were here and there, and in the middle of them was I, with a handful of fire and my blanket. It was very still, baas, for the wind was gone down, and I heard nothing at all but the ash sliding in the fire and the slow noise of the sheep eating. There was not even a jackal to stand out of sight and cry in the dark.

"Perhaps I was on the brink of sleep – perhaps I was only cloudy with thoughts – I do not know. But very suddenly I heard singing. – a voice coming nearer that sang a curious music."

"Curious!" The boy was hanging on the words. "Curious!" he repeated.

"It was a song," explained the old Kafir, "but the words of it were meaningless, just noises such as a baby makes – a babble. I listened, for I was not afraid. And soon I could hear footfalls among the stones and the singer came between me and the young moon, very great and black against the sky. It was only when he stood by my fire that I saw he was not a white man, but a Kafir. He was young, a strong young man, wearing clothes and boots." He paused. "Boots," he said again and thrust out his own bare foot, scarred and worn with much traveling. "Boots!"

In a town, it is conceivable that a Kafir may wear boots for purposes of splendor; but not on the Karoo. Paul saw the old man's point; here was an attribute of the unnatural.

"Yes," he said; "go on."

"I was sitting, with my pipe. He stood by the fire and looked down at me, and I could see by the shine of his teeth that he was smiling. But when he spoke, it was like his song – just noises, no speech at all. It was then that I began to doubt him. But I gave him greeting, and moved that he might sit down and smoke with me. He listened and shook his head gently, and spoke again with his slow soft voice in his language of the mad."

"What did it sound like?" demanded Paul.

"Baas, it sounded like English," replied the shepherd. "Yes, there are many Kafirs who speak English; the dorps are noisy with them; but there are none who do not speak Kafir. And this man had come through the night, singing in his strange tongue, going straight forward like one that has a purpose. I and my fire stayed him only for a minute; he was not one of us; he stood, with his head on one side, smiling down, while I began to feel fear and ill-ease. I had it in my mind that this was a ghost, but of a sudden he stooped to where my bread lay – I had newly eaten my supper, and the things still lay about – and took a piece as large as this fist. He seemed to ask for it, but I could not understand him. Then he laughed and tossed something into my lap, and turned again to the night and the long shadows and the things that belong there. His feet moved among the stones and he was gone; and later I heard him singing again in the distance, till his voice dwindled and was lost."

"He threw you something," said the boy. "What was it?"

The old shepherd nodded. "I will show the baas," he said, and made search among precarious pockets. "This is it; I have not spent it."

It was a shilling, looking no larger than sixpence on the flat of his great horny palm. Paul looked at it and turned it over, sensible that something was lacking in it, since it differed in no respect from any other shilling. The magic of madness and the stolid massiveness of Queen Victoria's effigy were not easy to reconcile.

"It looks like a good one," he commented.

"It is good," said the shepherd. "But – " he paused ere he put it in its true light – "the bread was not more than a pennyworth."

A hundred yards away the waiting sheep discharged a small volley of bleats. Paul raised his head.

"Yes," he said, "the veld is full of wonderful things. But I would like to hear that language of the mad."

He nodded in token of dismissal and walked slowly on towards the dam, where the scarlet of the sky had changed the water to blood. The old shepherd picked up his sticks and went heavily after the sheep, a grotesque and laborious figure in that wonder of evening light. The smooth dog slunk towards him, snuffling in welcome; the Kafir dog is not a demonstrative animal, and his snuffle meant much. The shepherd hit him with the longest of the wire-bound sticks.

"Hup!" he grunted. "Get on!"

At the top of the dam wall, the sloping bank of earth and stones that held the water, Paul paused to watch them pass into the shifting distance, ere he went to his concerns at the foot of it. He could not have put a name to the quality in them which stirred him and held him gazing, for beauty is older than speech; but words were not needful to flavor the far prospect of even land, with the sheep moving across it, the squat, swart shape of the shepherd pacing at their heels, and the strange, soft light making the whole unreal and mysterious.

Below the dam wall, the moisture oozing through had made a space of rank grass and trailing weed-vines, and the ground underfoot was cool and damp through the longest day of sun. Here one might sit in the odor of water and watch the wind lift tall spirals of dust and chase them over the monotonous miles where the very bushes rustled like dead boughs at their passage. It had the quality of a heritage, a place where one may be aloof and yet keep an eye on the world, and since there were no others who needed elbow-room for their dreams, Paul had it to himself. Here and there about the sloping bank, as on the walls of a gallery, his handiwork cracked and crumbled in the sun – little masks and figures of red clay which he fashioned to hold some shape that had caught his eye and stayed in it. He had an instinct for the momentary attitude, the quick, unconscious pose which is life, the bunched compact shape of a sheep grazing, the poise of a Kafir girl with a load on her head, a figure revealed in wind-blown clothes and lost in a flash. The sweet, pliant clay was his confidant; it was not the fault of the clay that he could tell it so much less than he knew.

He groped, kneeling, below a vine, and brought out the thing he had hidden there the evening before when the light failed him. A flattened stone at the foot of the wall was his table; he set the clay down tenderly and squatted beside it, with his back to the veld and all the world. It was to be the head of a negro, the negro as Paul knew him, and already the clay had shape. The shallow round of the skull was achieved; he had been feeling, darkly, gropingly, for the brutal angle of the brows that should brood like a cloud over the whole countenance. It had evaded him and baffled him; he knew how it should be, but when the time had come for him to leave it for the night, the brows still cocked themselves in a suggestion of imbecility which was heart-breaking. He turned it round, frowning a little as his habit was when he centered his faculties upon a matter; the chaos of the featureless face below the smooth head fronted him.

"Allemachtag!" he cried aloud, as he set eyes on it.

There was no possibility that he could be mistaken; he remembered, in their smallest exasperating detail, those brows as he had left them, taunting him as bad work will. Even now, he had but to close his eyes and he could see them, absurd and clamorous for correction. But – he stared dumbly at the clay as he realized it – since then another creator had played with it, or else the thing, left to itself, had frowned. The rampart of the brows had deepened above the empty face; Paul knew in it the darkness for which he had sought, the age-old patience quenching the spark of the soul. It was as different from what he had left as living flesh is from red clay, an inconsequent miracle.

"Somebody," said Paul, pondering over it – "somebody knows!"

The thing troubled him a little while, but he passed his hand over the clay, to make yet more sure of it, and the cool invitation of its softness was medicine for his wonder. He smudged the clay to a ridge in the place where the nose should be, and then, forgetting forthwith that he was the victim of a practical joke, as it seemed, played upon him by the powers of the air, he fell to work.

The colors in the west were burning low when he raised his head, disturbed by a far sound that forced itself on his ear. It was like a pulse in the air, a dull rhythmical throb faintly resonant like the beating of some great heart. He came to consciousness of it slowly, withdrawing himself unwillingly from the work under his hands, and noting with surprise that the evening light was all but gone. But the face of the negro was a step nearer completion, and even the outline of the gross mouth was there to aid the clay to return his look. The far sound insisted; he lifted his head with mild impatience to listen to it, sighed, and tucked the unfinished head away in its hidingplace. Perhaps another night would draw out the mouth to its destined shape of empty, pitiful mirth.

The beat of the gourd-drum that hung at the farmhouse door still called, and he hastened his steps along the homeward path. It was the common manner of summons on the farm. For the European ear, the gourd sawed across, with a skin stretched over it, is empty of music, but it has the quality of sowing its flat voice over many miles, threading through the voices of nature as a snake goes through grass. Simple variants in the rhythm of the strokes adapt it to messages, and now it was calling Paul. "Paul, Paul, P-P-Paul!" it thrilled, and its summons was as plain as words. To silence it, he put fingers to his mouth and answered with a shrill, rending whistle. The gourd was silent.

His mother was in the doorway as he came through the kraals; she heard his steps and called to him.