Flower o’ the Peach

Flower o’ the Peach

Perceval Gibbon
Perceval Gibbon

Author: Gibbon, Perceval, 1879-1926
South Africa — Fiction
Race relations — Fiction
Flower o’ the Peach




“Flower o’ the peach,
Death for us all and his own life for each.”

Fra Lippo Lippi.




Copyright, 1911, by


Published, October, 1911





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.


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

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.

“Paul! That you? Where you bin all this time?”

“By the dam,” he answered.

“I been callin’ you this half hour,” she said. “Mrs. Jakes
is here—she wants you.”

The light from within the house showed her as a
thin woman, with the shape of youth yet upon her.
But the years had taken tribute of her freshness, and
her small, rather vacant face was worn and faded.
She wore her hair coiled upon her head in a way to
frame the thin oval of the face, and there remained
to her yet the slight prettiness of sharp weak gestures
and little conscious attitudes. In her voice there
survived the clipped accent of London; Paul had come to
know it as the thing that distinguished his mother from
other women. Before her marriage she had been an
actress of the obscure sort to be found in the lesser
touring companies, and it was when the enterprise of
which she was a member had broken down at the town
of Fereira that she met and married the Boer,
Christian du Preez, Paul’s father. She preserved from
the old days a stock of photographs inscribed in
dashing hands—”yours to the dregs”—”your old pal”—”yours
ever most sincerely”—and so on a few cuttings
from newspapers—”Miss Vivie Sinclair as Gertie
Gottem was most unique,” said the
—a touch of raucousness in her voice, and a
ceaseless weary longing for the easy sham life, the foolish
cheerful companions, the stimulus of the daily publicity.

She drew the boy in, sliding her arm through his,
to where Mrs. Jakes sat waiting.

“Here he is at last,” she said, looking up at him
prettily. She often said she was glad her boy was tall
enough to go into a picture, but a mother must admire
her son for one thing or another.

Mrs. Jakes acknowledged Paul’s arrival with a
lady-like little smile. “Better late than never,” she

She was the wife of the doctor at the Sanatorium,
the old Dutch house that showed its steep roofs within
a couple of miles of the farm, where came in twos and
threes the consumptives from England, to mend their
broken lungs in the clean air of the Karoo. They
came not quite so frequently nowadays, for a few that
returned healed, or believing themselves to be healed,
had added to their travel-sketches of the wonderful old
house and its surroundings an account of Dr. Jakes
and his growing habit of withdrawing from his duties
to devote himself to drink. Their tales commonly
omitted to describe justly the anxious, lonely woman
who labored at such times to supply his place,
driving herself to contrive and arrange to keep the life
of the house moving in its course, to maintain an
assured countenance, and all the while to screen him
from public shame and ruin. She was a wan little
woman, clinging almost with desperation to those trivial
mannerisms and fashions of speech which in certain
worlds distinguished the lady from the mere person.
She had lain of nights beside a drunken husband, she
had fought with him when he would have gone out to
make a show of his staggering gait and blurred
speech—horrible silent battles in a candle-lit room, ending
in a gasping fall and sickness—she had lied and cheated
to hide the sorry truth, she had bared her soul in
gratitude to her kind God that her child had died. These
things as a matter of course, as women accept and
belittle their martyrdom; but never in her life had she
left the spoon standing in her tea-cup or mislaid her
handkerchief. The true standards of her life were
still inviolate.

She liked Paul because he was shy and gentle, but
not well enough to talk to him without mentioning the
weather first.

“The evenings are drawing out nicely,” she remarked,
leaning to one side in her chair to see through
the door the darkness growing dense upon the ve

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