Starlight on the Veld

It was a cold night (Oom Schalk Lourens said), the stars shone with that frosty sort of light that you see on the wet grass some mornings, when you forget that it is winter, and you get up early, by mistake. The wind was like a girl sobbing out her story of betrayal to the stars.

Jan Ockerse and I had been to Derdepoort by donkey-cart. We came back in the evening. And Jan Ockerse told me of a road round the foot of a koppie that would be a short cut back to Drogevlei. Thus it was that we were sitting on the veld, close to the fire, waiting for the morning. We would then be able to ask a kaffir to tell us a short cut back to the foot of that koppie.

“But I know that it was the right road,” Jan Ockerse insisted, flinging another armful of wood on the fire.

“Then it must have been the wrong koppie,” I answered, “or the wrong donkey-cart. Unless you also want me to believe that I am at this moment sitting at home, in my voorkamer.”

The light from the flames danced frostily on the spokes of a cartwheel, and I was glad to think that Jan Ockerse must be feeling as cold as I was.

“It is a funny sort of night,” Jan Ockerse said, “and I am very miserable and hungry.”

I was glad of that, too. I had begun to fear that he was enjoying himself.

“Do you know how high up the stars are?” Jan asked me next.

“No, not from here,” I said, “but I worked it all out once, when I had a pencil. That was on the Highveld, though. But from where we are now, in the Lowveld, the stars are further away. You can see that they look smaller, too.”

“Yes, I expect so,” Jan Ockerse answered, “but a school-teacher told me a different thing in the bar at Zeerust. He said that the stargazers work out how far away a star is by the number of years that it takes them to find it in their telescopes. This school-teacher dipped his finger in the brandy and drew a lot of pictures and things on the bar counter, to show me how it was done. But one part of his drawings always dried up on the counter before he had finished doing the other part with his finger. He said that was the worst of that dry sort of brandy. Yet he didn’t finish his explanations, because the barmaid came and wiped it all off with a rag. Then the school-teacher told me to come with him and he would use the blackboard in the other classroom. But the barmaid wouldn’t allow us to take our glasses into the private bar, and the school-teacher fell down just about then, too.”

“He seems to be one of that new kind of school-teacher,” I said, “the kind that teaches the children that the earth turns round the sun. I am surprised they didn’t sack him.”

“Yes,” Jan Ockerse answered, “they did.”

I was glad to hear that also.

It seemed that there was a waterhole near where we were out-spanned. For a couple of jackals started howling mournfully. Jan Ockerse jumped up and piled more wood on the fire.

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