That hard taskmaster, Satan, is sometimes
wonderfully indulgent to those who serve him well.
While Bough, the keeper of the tavern, was yet turning
about the open letter in his thick, short, hairy hands,
weighing the chances attending the sending of it against
the chances of keeping it back, the woman who served
as mistress of the place thrust her coarsely-waved
head of yellow bleached hair and rouge-ruddled face
in at the room door, and called to him:
“Boss, the sick toff is doing
a croak. Giving up the ghost for all he’s
worth he is. Better come and take a
look for yourself if you don’t believe me.”
Bough swore with relief and surprise,
delayed only to lock away the letter, and went to
take a look. It was as he hoped, a real stroke
of luck for a man who knew how to work it.
Richard Mildare for Bough
knew now what had been the name of the Englishman:
Captain the Hon. Richard Mildare, late of the Grey
Hussars was dead. No hand made murderous
by the lust of gold had helped him to his death.
Sudden failure of the heart is common in aggravated
cases of rheumatic fever, and with one suffocating
struggle, one brief final pang, he had gone to join
her he loved. But his dead face did not look
at rest. There was some reflection in it of the
terror that had come upon him in the watches of that
Bough stayed some time alone in the
room of death. When he came out he was extremely
affable and gentle. The woman, who knew him, chuckled
to herself when he met the Kaffir serving-maid bringing
back the child from an airing in the sun, and told
her to take it to the mistress. Then he went into
the bar-room to speak to the Englishman’s Boer
Leaning easily upon the zinc-covered
counter he spoke to the man in the Taal, with which
he was perfectly familiar:
“Your Baas has gone in, as my wife and I expected.”
Smoots Beste growled in his throat:
“He was no Baas of mine, the
verdoemte rooinek! I drove for him for pay, that
is all. There is wage owing me still, for the
matter of that and where am I to get it
now that the heathen has gone to the burning?”
Smoots, who was all of a heathen himself,
and regularly got drunk, not only on week days, but
on Sabbaths, felt virtuously certain that the Englishman
had gone to Hell.
Bough smiled and poured out a four-finger
swig of bad Cape brandy, and pushed it across the
“You shall get the money, every
tikkie. Only listen to me.”
Smoots Beste tossed off the fiery
liquid, and returned in a tone less surly:
“I am listening, Baas.”
Said Bough, speaking with the thickish
lisp and slurring of the consonants that distinguished
his utterance when he sought to appear more simple
and candid than usual:
“This dead toff, with his flash
waggon and fine team, and Winchester repeating-rifles,
had very little money. He has died in my debt
for the room and the nursing, and the good nourishment,
for which I trusted him all these three weeks, and
I am a poor man. The dollars I have paid you
and the Kaffir and the Cape boys on his account came
out of my own pocket. Rotten soft have I behaved
over him, that’s the God’s truth, and when
I shall get back my own there’s no knowing.
But, of course, I shall act square.”
The Boer’s thick lips parted
in a grin, showing his dirty, greenish-yellow teeth.
He scratched his shaggy head, and said, his tongue
lubricated to incautiousness by the potent liquor:
“The waggons, and the oxen,
and the guns and ammunition, and the stores in the
second waggon are worth good money. And the woman
that is dead had jewels I have seen them
on her diamonds and rubies in rings and
bracelets fit for the vrouw of King Solomon himself.
The Englishman did not bury them with her under that
verdoemte kopje that he built with his two hands,
and they are not in the boxes in the living-waggon.”
“Did he not?” asked Bough,
looking the Boer driver full in the face with a pleasant
smile. “Are they not?”
Smoots Beste’s piggish eyes
twinkled round the bar-room, looked up at the ceiling,
down at the floor, anywhere but into Bough’s.
He spat, and said in a much more docile tone:
“What do you want me to do?”
Bough leaned over the counter, and said confidentially:
Just this, friend. I want you to inspan, and take one of the waggons
up to Gueldersdorp, with a letter from me to the Civil Commissioner. I
will tell him how the man is dead, and he will send down a magistrates clerk to
put a seal on the boxes and cases, and then he will go through the letters and
papers in the pocket-book, and write to the people of the dead man over in
England, supposing he has any, for I have heard him tell my wife there was not a
living soul of his name now, except the child
“But what good will all this
do you and me, Baas?” asked the Boer subserviently.
Bough spread his hands and shrugged his shoulders.
“Why, when the magistrates and
lawyers have hunted up the man’s family, there
will be an order to sell the waggons and oxen and other
property to pay the expenses of his burying, and the
child’s keep here and passage from Cape Town,
if she is to be sent to England ... and what is left
over, see you, after the law expenses have been paid,
will go to the settlement of our just claims.
They will never let honest men suffer for behaving
square, sure no, they’ll not do that!”
But though Bough’s words were
full of faith in the fair dealing of the lawyers and
magistrates, his tone implied doubt.
“Boer lawyers are slim rogues
at best, and Engelsch lawyers are duyvels as well
as rogues,” said Smoots Beste, with a dull flash
Bough nodded, and pushed another glass
of liquor across the bar.
“And that’s true enough.
I’ve a score to settle with one or two of ’em.
By gum! I call myself lucky to be in this with
a square man like you. There’s the waggon,
brand-new you know what it cost at Cape
Town and the team, I trust you to take
up to Gueldersdorp, and who’s to hinder a man
who hasn’t the fear of the Lord in him from
heading north-east instead of north-west, selling
the waggon and the beasts at Kreilstad or Schoenbroon,
and living on a snug farm of your own for the rest
of your life under another man’s name, where
the English magistrates and the police will never find
you, though their noses were keener than the wild
“Alamachtig!” gasped Smoots
Beste, rendered breathless by the alluring, tempting
prospect. Surely the devil spoke with the voice
of the tavern-keeper Bough, when, in human form, he
tempted children of men. Sweat glistened on Smoots’
flabby features, his thick hands trembled, and his
bowels were as water. But his purpose was solidifying
in his brain as he said innocently, looking over Bough’s
left shoulder at the wooden partition that divided
off the bar from the landlord’s dwelling-room:
“Aye, I am no dirty schelm that
cannot be trusted. Therefore would it not be
better if I took both teams and waggons, and all the
rooinek’s goods with me up to Gueldersdorp,
and handed it over to the Engelsch landrost there?”
The fish was hooked. Bough said,
steadily avoiding those twirling eyes:
“A good notion, but the lawyer
chaps at Gueldersdorp will want to look at the Englishman’s
dead body to be able to satisfy his people that he
did not die of a gunshot, or of a knife-thrust; we
must bury him, of course, but not too deep for them
to dig him up again. And they will want to ferret
in all the corners of the room where he died, and make
sure that his bags and boxes have not been tampered
with and then there is the child.
In a way” he spoke slowly and apologetically “the
kid and the goods are my security for getting my own
back again if ever I do. So you will
inspan one of the waggons the best if you
like, with a team of six beasts, and you will trek
up to Gueldersdorp you will travel light
enough with only the grub you will need, and the Cape
boys, and you will hand over the letter to the Resident
Magistrate, and bring back the man who will act as
But at this point Smoots Beste set
down his splay foot. He would undertake to deliver
the letter, but he objected to the company of the coloured
voor-loopers or the Kaffir driver. He was firm
upon that and, finding his most honeyed persuasions
of no avail, Bough said no more. He would pay
off the niggers and dismiss them, or get rid of them
without paying; there were ways and means. He
sent up country, and the team came down, six thin,
overworked creatures, with new scars upon their slack
and baggy hides, and hollow flanks, and ribs that
showed painfully. Smoots Beste was about to grumble,
but he changed his mind, and took the letter, buttoning
it up in the flapped pocket of his tan-cord jacket,
and the long whip cracked like a revolver as the lash
hissed out over the backs of the wincing oxen, and
the white tilt rocked over the veld, heading to the
“When will the Dutchy be back,
boss?” asked the woman, with a knowing look.
Bough played the game up to her.
He answered quite seriously: “In three
Then he strolled out, smoking a cigar,
his hat tilted at an angle that spoke of satisfaction.
His walk led him past the oblong cairn of ironstone
boulders in the middle of the sandy patch of ground
enclosed with zinc wire-netting. At the foot
of the cairn was a new grave.
For the lover did not even lie beside
his beloved, as he had vowed once, promised and planned,
but couched below her feet, waiting, like some faithful
hound that could not live without the touch of the
worshipped hand, for the dead to rise again.
Why is it that Failure is the inevitable
fate of some men and women? Despite brilliant
prospects, positions that seem assured, commanding
talents nobly used, splendid opportunities that are
multiplied as though in mockery, the result is Nothing
from first to last; while the bad flourish and the
evil prosper, and the world honours the stealer of
the fruit of the brains that have been scattered in
frenzied despair, or have become so worn out from
the constant effort of creation that the worker has
sunk into hopeless apathy and died.
Bough was not one of those men whose
plans come to nothing. He had prospered as a
rogue of old in England, really his native country,
though he called himself an Afrikander. Reared
in the gutters of the Irish quarter of Liverpool,
he had early learned to pilfer for a living, had prospered
in prison as sharp young gaol-birds may prosper, and
returned to it again and again, until, having served
out part of a sentence for burglary and obtained his
ticket-of-leave, he had shifted his convict’s
skin, and made his way out to Cape Colony under a false
name and character. He had made a mistake, it
was true, enlisting as a trooper of Colonial Police,
but the step had been forced upon him by circumstances.
Then he had deserted, and had since been successful
as a white-slave dealer at Port Elizabeth, and as
a gold-miner in the Transvaal, and he had done better
and better still at that ticklish trade of gun-running
for Oom Paul. Though, get caught only
once get caught and the Imperial Government
authorities, under whose noses you had been playing
the game with impunity for years, made it as hot as
Hell for you. Bough, however, did not mean ever
to get caught. There was always another man, a
semi-innocent dupe, who would appear to have been responsible
for everything, and who would get pinched.
Such a dupe now trudged at the head
of the meagre three-span ox-team. When, after
a hard day’s toil, he at length outspanned, the
waggon-pole still faithfully pointed to the north-west.
But before it was yet day the waggon began to move
again, and it was to the north-east that the waggon-pole
pointed thenceforwards, and the letter Bough had given
Smoots Beste for the Chief Resident Magistrate at
Gueldersdorp was saved from the kindling of the camp-fire
by a mere accident.
The cat’s-paw could not read,
or the illegible, meaningless ink scrawl upon the
sheet within the boldly-addressed envelope would have
aroused his suspicions at the outset. So well
had Bough, that expert in human frailty, understood
his subject, that the letter was a bogus letter, a
fraud, not elaborate a mere stage property,
nothing more. But yet he gave it in full belief
that it would be burned, and that, the boats of Smoots
Beste being consumed with it, according to the thick
judgment of the said Smoots, it would be as a pillar
of fire behind that slim child of the old voortrekkers,
hastening his journey north-eastwards. It is typical
of the class of Smoots that it never once occurred
to him to go north.
But Smoots Beste never bought a farm
with the price of the oxen and the high-bulwarked,
teak-built, waterproof-canvas tilted waggon that had
cost such a good round sum. There was a big rainfall
on the third day. It began with the typical African
thunderstorm deafening, continuous rolls
and crashes of heavy cloud-artillery, and lightning
that blazed and darted without intermission, and ran
zigzagging in a horrible, deadly, playful fashion
over the veld, as though looking for dishonest folks
to shrivel. One terrible flash struck the wheel-oxen,
a thin double tongue of blue flame sped flickering
from ridge to ridge of the six gaunt backs ... there
was a smell of burning hair a reek of sulphur.
The team lay outstretched dead on the veld, the heavy
yoke across their patient necks, the long horns curving,
the thin starved bodies already beginning to bloat
and swell in the swift decomposition that follows
death by the electric fluid.
Smoots Beste crawled under the waggon,
and, remembering all he had heard his father spell
out from the Dutch Bible about the Judgment Day, and
the punishment of sinners in everlasting flame, felt
very ill at ease. The storm passed over, and
the rain poured all through the night, but dawn brought
in a clear blue day; and with it a train of eight
transport-waggons, and several wearied, muddy droves
of sheep and cattle, the property of the Imperial
Government Commissariat Department, Gueldersdorp,
being taken from Basutoland East up to Gueldersdorp,
under convoy of an escort of B.S.A. Police.
To the non-commissioned officer in command Smoots
Beste, resigned to the discharge of a trust, handed
the letter for the Civil Commissioner.
The sergeant, sitting easily in the
saddle, looked at the boldly-written direction on
the envelope, and smelt no rats at least
until he coolly opened the supposed letter. The
scrawled sheet of paper it contained was a surprise,
but he did not let Smoots see that. Then the following
brief dialogue took place:
“You were trekking up to Gueldersdorp,”
he said to the decidedly nervous Smoots, “to
fetch down a Deputy Civil Commissioner to deal with
the effects of a dead English traveller, at a house
kept by the man who wrote this letter that
is, three days’ trek over the veld to the southward,
and called the Free State Hotel?”
Smoots nodded heavily. The dapper
sergeant cocked his felt smasher hat, and turned between
pleasantly smiling lips the cigar he was smoking.
Then he pointed with his riding-whip, a neatly varnished
sjambok, with a smart silver top, to the north-west.
“There lies Gueldersdorp.
Rum that when the lightning killed the ox-team you
should have been trekking north-east, isn’t it?”
Smoots Beste agreed that it was decidedly rum.
The sergeant said, without a change in his agreeable
“All right; you can inspan six
of our drove-bullocks, and drive the waggon with us
“Thank you, Baas!” said Smoots, without
“If you like to take the risk,”
added the sergeant, who had not quite finished.
He ended with an irrepressible outburst of honest indignation:
“Why, you blasted, thieving Dutch scum, do you
think I don’t know you were stealing
that span and waggon?”
And as Smoots, sweating freely, unyoked
the dead oxen, he decided in his heavy mind that he
would be missing long before the convoy got to Gueldersdorp.
Nine waggons rolled on where only
eight had been before. The mounted men hurried
on the daubed and wearied droves of Commissariat beasts.
Smoots Beste drove the scratch team of bullocks, but
his heart was as water within his belly, and there
was no resonance in the smack of his whip. When
the convoy came to a town, he vanished, and the story
thenceforth knows him no more. The discreet sergeant
of police did not even notice that he was missing
until several days later, when the end of the journey
was near at hand. He was a sober, careful man,
and a good husband. He shortly afterwards made
quite a liberal remittance to his wife, and his troopers
pushed Kruger half-sovereigns across most of the bars
in Gueldersdorp shortly after the purchase by a Dopper
farmer of a teak-built Cape waggon that a particular
friend of the sergeant’s had got to sell.
And they were careful, at first, not to wag loose tongues.
But as time went on the story of the English traveller
who had brought the body of the woman to the Free
State Hotel, so many days’ trek to the southwards
from Gueldersdorp, trickled from lip to lip.
And years later, years too late, it came to the ears
of a friend of dead Richard Mildare.
The sergeant maintained silence.
He was a careful officer, and a discreet man, and,
what is more, religious. In controversial arguments
with the godless he would sometimes employ a paraphrase
of the story of Smoots Beste to strengthen his side.
“A chap’s a blamed fool
that doesn’t believe in God, I tell you.
I was once after a bung-nosed Dutch thief of a transport-driver,
that had waltzed away with a brand-new Cape cart and
a team of first-class mules. Taking ’em
up to Pretoria on the quiet, to sell ’em to Oom
Paul’s burghers, he was. Ay, they were
worth a tidy lump! A storm came on a
regular Vaal display of sky-fireworks. The rain
came down like gun-barrels, the veld turned into a
swamp, but we kept on after the Dutchman, who drove
like gay old Hell. Presently comes a blue blaze
and a splitting crack, as if a comet had come shouldering
into the map of South Africa, and knocked its head
in. We pushed on, smelling sulphur, burnt flesh,
and hair. ‘By gum!’ said I; ‘something’s
got it’; and I was to rights. The Cape
cart stood on the veld, without a scratch on the paintwork.
The four mules lay in their traces, deader than pork.
The Dutchman sat on the box, holding the lines and
his voorslag, and grinning. He was dead, too struck
by the lightning in the act of stealing those mules
and that Cape cart. Don’t let any fellow
waste hot air after that trying to persuade me that
there isn’t such a thing as an overruling Providence!”
Thus the sergeant: and his audience,
whether Free-thinkers, Agnostics, or believers, would
break up, feeling that one who has the courage of his
opinions is a respectable man.
As for Bough, in whose hands even
the astute sergeant had been as a peeled rush, we
may go back and find him counting money in gold and
notes that had been taken from the belt of the dead
Seventeen hundred pounds, hard cash a
pretty windfall for an honest man. The honest
man whistled softly, handling the white crackling notes,
and feeling the smooth, heavy English sovereigns slip
between his fingers.
There were certificates of Rand stock,
also a goodly number of Colonial Railway shares, and
some foreign bonds, all of which could be realised
on, but at a distance, and by a skilled hand.
There were jewels, as the Boer waggon-driver had said,
that had belonged to the dead woman diamond
rings, and a bracelet or two; and there were silk dresses
of lovely hues and texture, and cambric and linen
dresses, and tweed dresses, in the trunks; and a great
cloak of sables, trimmed with many tails, and beautiful
underclothing of silk and linen, trimmed with real
lace, over which the mouth of the woman of the tavern
watered. She got some of the dresses and all
the undergarments when Bough had dexterously picked
out the embroidered initials. He knew diamonds
and rubies, but he had never been a judge of lace.
There was a coronet upon one or two
handkerchiefs that had been overlooked when the dead
woman had burned the others four years previously.
Bough picked this out too, working deftly with a needle.
He was clever, very clever. He
could take to pieces a steam-engine or a watch, and
put it together again. He knew all there is to
know about locks, and how they may best be opened
without their keys. He could alter plate-marks
with graving tools and the jeweller’s blow-pipe,
and test metals with acids, and make plaster-cast
moulds that would turn out dollars and other coins,
remarkably like the real thing. He was not a
clever forger; he had learned to write somewhat late
in life, and the large, bold round hand, with the
capital letters that invariably began with the wrong
quirk or twirl, was too characteristic, though he wrote
anonymous letters sometimes, risking detection in the
enjoyment of what was to him a dear delight, only
smaller than that other pleasure of moulding bodies
to his own purposes, of malice, or gain, or lust.