I was always a little in awe of Great-aunt Stephina Roos. Indeed, as children we were all frankly terrified of her. The fact that she did not live with the family, preferring her tiny cottage and solitude to the comfortable but rather noisy household where we were brought up-added to the respectful fear in which she was held.
We used to take it in turn to carry small delicacies which my mother had made down from the big house to the little cottage where Aunt Stephia and an old colored maid spent their days. Old Tnate Sanna would open the door to the rather frightened little messenger and would usher him-or her – into the dark voor-kamer, where the shutters were always closed to keep out the heat and the flies. There we would wait, in trembling but not altogether unpleasant.
She was a tiny little woman to inspire so much veneration. She was always dressed in black, and her dark clothes melted into the shadows of the voor-kamer and made her look smaller than ever. But you felt. The moment she entered. That something vital and strong and somehow indestructible had come in with her, although she moved slowly, and her voice was sweet and soft.
She never embraced us. She would greet us and take out hot little hands in her own beautiful cool one, with blue veins standing out on the back of it, as though the white skin were almost too delicate to contain them.
Tante Sanna would bring in dishes of sweet, sweet, sticky candy, or a great bowl of grapes or peaches, and Great-aunt Stephina would converse gravely about happenings on the farm ,and, more rarely, of the outer world.
When we had finished our sweetmeats or fruit she would accompany us to the stoep, bidding us thank our mother for her gift and sending quaint, old-fashioned messages to her and the Father. Then she would turn and enter the house, closing the door behind, so that it became once more a place of mystery.
As I grew older I found, rather to my surprise, that I had become genuinely fond of my aloof old great-aunt. But to this day I do not know what strange impulse made me take George to see her and to tell her, before I had confided in another living soul, of our engagement. To my astonishment, she was delighted.
“An Englishman,”she exclaimed.”But that is splendid, splendid. And you,”she turned to George,”you are making your home in this country? You do not intend to return to England just yet?”
She seemed relieved when she heard that George had bought a farm near our own farm and intended to settle in South Africa. She became quite animated, and chattered away to him.
After that I would often slip away to the little cottage by the mealie lands. Once she was somewhat disappointed on hearing that we had decided to wait for two years before getting married, but when she learned that my father and mother were both pleased with the match she seemed reassured.
Still, she often appeared anxious about my love affair, and would ask questions that seemed to me strange, almost as though she feared that something would happen to destroy my romance. But I was quite unprepared for her outburst when I mentioned that George thought of paying a lightning visit to England before we were married.”He must not do it,”she cried.”Ina, you must not let him go. Promise me you will prevent him.”she was trembling all over. I did what I could to console her, but she looked so tired and pale that I persuaded her to go to her room and rest, promising to return the next day.
When I arrived I found her sitting on the stoep. She looked lonely and pathetic, and for the first time I wondered why no man had ever taken her and looked after her and loved her. Mother had told me that Great-aunt Stephina had been lovely as a young girl, and although no trace of that beauty remained, except perhaps in her brown eyes, yet she looked so small and appealing that any man, one felt, would have wanted to protect her.
She paused, as though she did not quite know how to begin.
Then she seemed to give herself, mentally, a little shake. “You must have wondered “, she said, “why I was so upset at the thought of young George‘s going to England without you. I am an old woman, and perhaps I have the silly fancies of the old, but I should like to tell you my own love story, and then you can decide whether it is wise for your man to leave you before you are married.”
“I was quite a young girl when I first met Richard Weston. He was an Englishman who boarded with the Van Rensburgs on the next farm, four or five miles from us. Richard was not strong. He had a weak chest, and the doctors had sent him to South Africa so that the dry air could cure him. He taught the Van Rensburg children, who were younger than I was, though we often played together, but he did this for pleasure and not because he needed money.
“We loved one another from the first moment we met, though we did not speak of our love until the evening of my eighteenth birthday. All our friends and relatives had come to my party, and in the evening we danced on the big old carpet which we had laid down in the barn. Richard had come with the Van Rensburgs, and we danced together as often as we dared, which was not very often, for my father hated the Uitlanders. Indeed, for a time he had quarreled with Mynheer Van Rensburg for allowing Richard to board with him, but afterwards he got used to the idea, and was always polite to the Englishman, though he never liked him.
“That was the happiest birthday of my life, for while we were resting between dances Richard took me outside into the cool, moonlit night, and there, under the stars ,he told me he loved me and asked me to marry him. Of course I promised I would, for I was too happy to think of what my parents would say, or indeed of anything except Richard was not at our meeting place as he had arranged. I was disappointed but not alarmed, for so many things could happen to either of us to prevent out keeping our tryst. I thought that next time we visited the Van Ransburgs, I should hear what had kept him and we could plan further meetings…
“So when my father asked if I would drive with him to Driefontein I was delighted. But when we reached the homestead and were sitting on the stoep drinking our coffee, we heard that Richard had left quite suddenly and had gone back to England. His father had died, and now he was the heir and must go back to look after his estates.
“I do not remember very much more about that day, except that the sun seemed to have stopped shining and the country no longer looked beautiful and full of promise, but bleak and desolate as it sometimes does in winter or in times of drought. Late that afternoon, Jantje, the little Hottentot herd boy, came up to me and handed me a letter , which he said the English baas had left for me. It was the only love letter I ever received, but it turned all my bitterness and grief into a peacefulness which was the nearest I could get, then, to happiness. I knew Richard still loved me, and somehow, as long as I had his letter, I felt that we could never be really parted, even if he were in England and I had to remain on the farm. I have it yet, and though I am an old, tired woman, it still gives me hope and courage.”
“I must have been a wonderful letter, Aunt Stephia,”I said.
The old lady came back from her dreams of that far-off romance.”Perhaps,” she said, hesitating a little, “perhaps, my dear, you would care to read it ?”
“I should love to , Aunt Stephia,”I said gently.
She rose at once and tripped into the house as eagerly as a young girl. When she came back she handed me a letter, faded and yellow with age, the edges of the envelope worn and frayed as though it had been much handled. But when I came to open it I found that the seal was unbroken.
“Open it ,open it,”said Great-aunt Stephia, and her voice was shaking.
I broke the seal and read.
It was not a love letter in the true sense of the word, but pages of the minutest directions of how”my sweetest Phina”was to elude her father‘s vigilance, creep down to the drift at night and there meet Jantje with a horse which would take her to Smitsdorp. There she was to go to “my true friend, Henry Wilson”,who would give her money and make arrangements for her to follow her lover to Cape Town and from there to England ,” where, my love, we can he be married at once. But if, my dearest, you are not sure that you can face lift with me in a land strange to you, then do not take this important step, for I love you too much to wish you the smallest unhappiness. If you do not come, and if I do not hear from you, then I shall know that you could never be happy so far from the people and the country which you love. If, however, you feel you can keep your promise to me, but are of too timid and modest a journey to England unaccompanied, then write to me, and I will, by some means, return to fetch my bride.”
I read no further.
“But Aunt Phina!”I gasped. “Why…why…?”
The old lady was watching me with trembling eagerness, her face flushed and her eyes bright with expectation.”Read it aloud, my dear,”she said.”I want to hear every word of it. There was never anyone I could trust…Uitlanders were hated in my young days…I could not ask anyone.”
“But, Auntie, don‘t you even know what he wrote?”
The old lady looked down, troubled and shy like a child who has unwittingly done wrong.
“No, dear,” she said, speaking very low.”You see, I never learned to read.