allow for the height of the land and the great transparency
In this homely way I first heard of a place which was to be the theatre of so many strange doings.
'It's a fine chance for you,' my uncle continued. 'You'll only be assistant at first, but when you have learned your job you'll have a store of your own. Mackenzie's people will pay you three hundred pounds a year, and when you get a store you'll get a percentage on sales. It lies with you to open up new trade among the natives. I hear that Blaauw - something or other, is in the far north of the Transvaal, and I see from the map that it is in a wild, hilly country. You may find gold or diamonds up there, and come back and buy Portincross House.' My uncle rubbed his hands and smiled cheerily.
Truth to tell I was both pleased and sad. If a learned profession was denied me I vastly preferred a veld store to an Edinburgh office stool. Had I not been still under the shadow of my father's death I might have welcomed the chance of new lands and new folk. As it was, I felt the loneliness of an exile. That afternoon I walked on the Braid Hills, and when I saw in the clear spring sunlight the coast of Fife, and remembered Kirkcaple and my boyish days, I could have found it in me to sit down and cry.
A fortnight later I sailed. My mother bade me a tearful farewell, and my uncle, besides buying me an outfit and paying my passage money, gave me a present of twenty sovereigns. 'You'll not be your mother's son, Davie,' were his last words, 'if you don't come home with it multiplied by a thousand.' I thought at the time that I would give more than twenty thousand pounds to be allowed to bide on the windy shores of Forth.
I sailed from Southampton by an intermediate steamer, and went steerage to save expense. Happily my acute homesickness was soon forgotten in another kind of malady. It blew half a gale before we were out of the Channel, and by the time we had rounded Ushant it was as dirty weather as ever I hope to see. I lay mortal sick in my bunk, unable to bear the thought of food, and too feeble to lift my head. I wished I had never left home, but so acute was my sickness that if some one had there and then offered me a passage back or an immediate landing on shore I should have chosen the latter.
It was not till we got into the fair-weather seas around Madeira that I recovered enough to sit on deck and observe my fellow-passengers. There were some fifty of us in the steerage, mostly wives and children going to join relations, with a few emigrant artisans and farmers. I early found a friend in a little man with a yellow beard and spectacles, who sat down beside me and remarked on the weather in a strong Scotch accent. He turned out to be a Mr Wardlaw from Aberdeen, who was going out to be a schoolmaster. He was a man of good education, who had taken a university degree, and had taught for some years as an under-master in a school in his native town. But the east winds had damaged his lungs, and he had been glad to take the chance of a poorly paid country school in the veld. When I asked him where he was going I was amazed to be told, 'Blaauwildebeestefontein.'
Mr Wardlaw was a pleasant little man, with a sharp tongue but a cheerful temper. He laboured all day at primers of the Dutch and Kaffir languages, but in the evening after supper he would walk with me on the after-deck and discuss the future. Like me, he knew nothing of the land he was going to, but he was insatiably curious, and he affected me with his interest. 'This place, Blaauwildebeestefontein,' he used to say, 'is among the Zoutpansberg mountains, and as far as I can see, not above ninety miles from the railroad. It looks from the map a well-watered country, and the Agent-General in London told me it was healthy or I wouldn't have taken the job. It seems we'll be in the heart of native reserves up there, for here's a list of chiefs - 'Mpefu, Sikitola, Majinje, Magata; and there are no white men living to the east of us because of the fever. The name means the "spring of the blue wildebeeste," whatever fearsome animal that may be. It sounds like a place for adventure, Mr Crawfurd. You'll exploit the pockets of the black men and I'll see what I can do with their minds.' There was another steerage passenger whom I could not help observing because of my dislike of his appearance. He, too, was a little man, by name Henriques, and in looks the most atrocious villain I have ever clapped eyes on. He had a face the colour of French mustard - a sort of dirty green - and bloodshot, beady eyes with the whites all yellowed with fever. He had waxed moustaches, and a curious, furtive way of walking and looking about him. We of the steerage were careless in our dress, but he was always clad in immaculate white linen, with pointed, yellow shoes to match his complexion. He spoke to no one, but smoked long cheroots all day in the stern of the ship, and studied a greasy pocket-book. Once I tripped over him in the dark, and he turned on me with a snarl and an oath. I was short enough with him in return, and he looked as if he could knife me.
'I'll wager that fellow has been a slave-driver in his time,' I told Mr Wardlaw, who said, 'God pity his slaves, then.'
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