From Boatsheds to Battlefields 25 New Beginnings

A month of fishing and mountain excursions had passed when once more Mick’s face was turned Struanwards. His friend Zach had moved heaven and earth to find congenial employment for Mick and had succeeded.

So primed with good advice, filled with good intentions Michael Osmond alighted at Struan to be met by Peter Van Der Walt an old school friend and co-partners with his brother Mathew in one of Struan’s finest estates.

Now followed a happy period. The Van Der Walt’s two young brothers and a schoolgirl sister who was fair to look at and pleasant to know owned twelve hundred ostriches which brought in a regular stream of gold. There was a vineyard of eighty thousand vines which yielded large quantities of rough country wine and brandy – pedigree merino sheep, purebred Hackney horses, Friesland cattle, breeding ostriches and great crops of wheat, peas, oats, and barley all contributing to nearly double the income derived from feathers.

Sharing a room with Peter, treated as one of the family, allowed to work more or less where and when he wanted Mick’s sea longings vanished and all his heart and soul went into farming.

Sometimes he drove with Peter or rode with Mathew, other times worked with the field gangs. There were horses and mules to be broken in and saddle and harness, ostriches to be plucked, vineyards and orchards to be pruned and dug, stumping, irrigating and a hundred other works – all interesting.

At daybreak the Reveille bell rang and immediately all hands except irrigation boys fell in at the door of the wine cellar where each man was issued with a cup of claret – then followed milking, cream separating, feeding stock, cutting firewood and all the manifold farmyard jobs.

Meanwhile, those coloured men engaged on irrigation had left long before dawn to open furrows and flood the lands they were working on. Oxen and mules were driven up to ploughs, harrows, leveling machines and wagons, whilst the farmyard tasks were in swing and shortly after sunrise everybody was working smoothly and rapidly.

At Reveille Mick took well made freshly roasted coffee with the two brothers, helped issue the wine ration and then either rode around the lands with Peter or Accompanied Mathew on a tour of Dairy, byres, and stables.

At 8 o’clock the breakfast bell sounded. Work stopped automatically and a second wine ration was issued – those already in the lands drawing theirs from a can which had been sent out to them.

Breakfast at the Van Der Walts was a serious business worthy of the ancient Holland traditions of the family. Maize kernels boiled in milk were followed by omelette of ostrich egg, tender mutton cutlets from a freshly killed sheep or its liver and kidneys, white and brown farm made bread of their own grown and milled wheat, newly laid eggs – delicious butter, honey, jams, and preserves of fruit – everything produced on the farm except the fragrant coffee and sugar.

At 8.30 the farm bell sounded – again an issue of wine was given to the labourers after which work restarted. Where a gang laboured a white foreman set the pace with spade, sickle or scythe – any man who could not keep the pace knew that the end of the day was the end of him as regarded employment with the Van Der Walts.

At eleven a halt was called a fourth wine issue was made and for ten minutes the men lay smoking and drinking. Again came the call to work, once more scythe swung or sickle gleamed until noon, when the old slave bell tolled from the house and work ceased for an hour – once more wine was issued and the men lay under monster pear trees eating and resting.

At the house, lunch consisted of thick bean soup boiled with diced bacon, rissoles or curry, cold mutton and bread and butter. Four o’clock brought wine and a breathing spell after which work continued until sunset when the field labourers drew their last lot of wine and received a supply to help them through the evening. Boys on irrigation received a little Brandy and their ration of wine for the morrow and a little later the farmyard tasks having been completed peace reigned over the estate.

Shortly before sunset when the work in the byre, stable and dairy commenced Peter and Mick would visit the pantry where Mrs Du Toit the housekeeper would supply them with bread, butter and thick milk although an hour earlier they had made a hearty meal of cake, coffee, and the far farmed Cape Konfyt or preserved fruit.

Dinner, a long stately meal of endless courses was followed by evening prayers when Mathew read a chapter of the Bible and a psalm and prayer ended the day.

One of Mick’s first places of work was the helping to round up some six hundred ostriches which during the winter months had been turned into bush country away from cultivation.

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From Boatsheds to Battlefields 24 Homesick

The end of 23rd Entry: Mrs Van Zijl felt, knew that her daughter and Mick were enjoying a little boy and girl romance but poor Mrs Van Zijl could gather no proof.

One morning a neighbour – a poor man – came rushing over, a child was down with diphtheria – could Mr Van Zijl get a doctor – it was a matter of hours as to whether the child lived or died.

“Inspan the two best horses and drive like hell for the doctor Mick” called Mr Van Zijl as he grasped the situation. Helped by Mr Van Zijl and the distressed father Mick took but a couple of minutes in getting two young mares harnessed and in the cart – jumping in the youth cracked his whip, the two fresh horses sprang forward, raced around the corner of the stables and the flying cart took the bend one wheel high in the air.

Down the rough farm road tore the horses Mick standing in the cart urging them on with the crack of whip and voice though little well-bred animals needed encouragement.

In imagination, Mick was a charioteer of the ancient Celtic tribes dashing through Erin with the news of the Romans landing in Britain. As he peopled his mind with pictures, tribesmen dashing out of villages to watch this mad course, or clearing from the roadway before galloping hoofs of his horses he sang and yelled to the frowning hills and the pitiless blue sky.

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Soon, however, realisation came that he had fifteen miles to go with a child’s life hanging on his journey and that it wasn’t much use knocking up his horses in the first two, so ceasing his noise Mick began to try and quieten the animals, no easy task but at last successful.

Now the first burst of excitement over Mick drove carefully but speedily watching his horses he nursed them on the upgrades, let them out on the down ways, kept a steady swinging trot along the level and then as far in the distance he saw the Dutch Church Spire once more he began to drive madly forward.

At last covered with foam, staggering with exhaustion the horses drew up at the doctor’s door. Fortunately, he was at home and on the situation being explained immediately gave orders for his cart to be inspanned and hastily began to make preparations for his journey.

Driving slowly up the village hotel Mick took the exhausted horses out, unharnessed them and sent the pair for a walk and roll. Once cooled the boy rubbed their legs down with brandy gave them hot bran mash and then thankfully strolled over to Mrs Scott and her daughter.

Warmly Mick spent a pleasant day and evening slept at the hotel and early next morning returned to the farm to find his errand had been unavailing the child having died shortly before the doctor’s arrival.

A week later Mick was ill – for three days he lay in bed with a bad throat and racking head – the attention he received was nil – food was brought in at meal times but the lad’s very being revolted at fat pork, greasy potatoes and sweetened pumpkin. Visions of a loving mother and the best of all his pals, his Dad – thoughts of custards, jellies – a little chicken broth, books to read, friends to listen to – Oh but the lad was homesick.

Accused of malingering Mick staggered back to work – later returned to his room to find a greatly treasure crucifix on the floor was broken, his kit thrown everywhere – in came Mr Van Zijl raging – Mrs Van Zijl had in her motherly fashion come to tidy the room – by accident a portion of an open letter from Mick to his father had photographed itself on her brain – a paragraph vividly describing the food, the manners, the personalities of Mr and Mrs Van Zijl. Van Zijl white with rage discoursed at length and in detail reviewing Mick’s past, present and prophesying his future – he raised a cruel looking sjambok/whip.

Mick with a sailor’s agility leapt out of the window and took the main road to Struan. Five miles on he halted at a friendly farmer who disliked Van Zijl. To an amused Dutchman of the grand old school and to a bevvy of giggling maidens Mick related his experiences.

A week later returning from a fishing expedition, Mick’s father handed him a letter.

Mr Van Zijl “wished to assure Mr Osmond of his unabated friendship and respect, but at the same time felt it his duty to inform Mr Osmond that his son was an unmitigated liar, was absolutely useless on a farm, was impudent, untrustworthy and wicked. On his own confession, he was in the habit of consorting with Roman Catholics, fishermen and other characters certain to lead even a good boy astray.

Mr Van Zijl understood that Mick in his sixteen years of life had tried the tempers of and been given up as hopeless by the masters of no less than seven schools. In the month Mick had been with him he fully sympathised with the masters and mistresses of the seven schools.”

Mick snorted – “He lies! The swine! He lies!”

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From Boatsheds to Battlefields 23 Farming and Romancing

End of 22nd Entry: A large plate of maize meal porridge, a couple of freshly laid eggs and heavy meal of course brown bread put Mick on excellent terms with himself.

Breakfast over Van Zijl and the boy harnessing a pair of sturdy ponies to a light single poled cart drove off on a tour of inspection.

Half an hour’s drive brought them to a pumping station where Mick was introduced to a hard-featured Australian named Wallace who was in charge of a suction gas plant which pumped a large stream from a broad river up to an irrigation furrow. Half an hour was spent in explaining the working of the engine to Mick and then Van Zijl re-entering the cart drove into his lands.

Some four hundred acres lay under irrigation furrow of which a hundred were under cultivation. He explained that the Government was contemplating a scheme whereby a large canal would bring over two thousand acres of his lands under irrigation – “I took over this farm as a debt a year ago valuing it at fifteen shillings per acre – it is worth £2 per acre today and if the canal is built may be valued at £200 per acre in a couple of years time” he said. “I am willing however to give your Dad an option at forty shillings per acre over 700 acres or to rent them to him for two years at £40 per month. I will be advancing the implements and superintending the working of it until you are capable of doing it yourself.”

Mick thanked Van Zijl profusely and promised to write to Mr Osmond that night – inwardly he thought “Well Mick you won’t be staying anyway – perhaps Dad will let me go to sea.”

At one of the lands Van Zijl stopped at a plough pulled by sixteen oxen. “Now Mick if a farmer wants to show his employees how to do a job he must know how to do it himself. I don’t believe in false pride – to master a job a man must start from the very beginning. I want you to take the leader’s place on that plough for a few days, then lead mules, once you know a leader’s job I’ll put you on holding the plough and then to driving. Meanwhile you’ll learn to milk, handle animals and implements after which you will be able to take an intelligent interest in farming.

Three weeks of hard solid work followed. From dawn until breakfast time Mick worked in the stable, byre and dairy – after breakfast fetched the oxen or mules or held the plough or handled the long bamboo whip with its twenty-five foot lash. At midday his lunch was sent to him – a bottle of separated milk or cold coffee, cold meat and badly cooked bread – then after an hours spell back to plough, harrow or waggon. Just before sunset the animals were freed and walking back to the homestead Mick once again took up the farmyard routine until long after dark. A hasty sluice and a poor meal followed with an hours devotion ending the day.

Mick cursed with all the fluency gained by much mixing with hardened sailormen – unbosomed himself to Wallace with whom he had struck up a firm friendship.

“I like the work – I don’t mind leading and I love holding the plough or handling the whip – I want to learn to ride, drive, milk and the rest of it, but I hate Van Zijl he’s just a creeping — and his wife’s a bitch.”

The Australian laughed – “You’re right Sonny – that’s the worst of these lawyer blokes and book farmers – everything is theory and not practice – an ordinary boss is bad enough but a lawyer one is a bastard. I’ve worked on sheep runs, cattle stations, copra schooners and been in the army and I never struck a boss that hadn’t something wrong with him. Still if you’re lucky you’ll be a boss yourself one day and then your employees will curse you – it’s always a comfort thinking that.”

Mick found little opportunity for riding – once or twice Van Zijl took him out and Mick to his delight managed to sit the stallion which having been a pet from birth proved easily manageable.

A long course of twisting about and hanging onto ships rigging and mountain precipice had given young Mick all the nimbleness of a monkey and being entirely without nerves riding came easily and naturally to him.

Relations between Mrs Van Zijl and Mick became more and more strained – Mick complained openly about the food especially the quality of the bread – Mr Osmond wrote stating that he neither was nor ever would be likely to assist Mick financially and the Van Zijls began to look sourly at him.

Miss Van Zijl, a sixteen year old school girl, came to the farm for her holidays – like most South African country girls she was a robust pretty damsel full of rich blood – fresh from a boarding school and longing to play with boys. Susie immediately began to make eyes at Mick – Mick’s Celtic blood flamed and on several occasions Mrs Van Zijl’s eyes looked suspiciously at a flushed daughter who in answer to her calling had appeared with some excuse for her absence. Mrs Van Zijl watched, Mrs Van Zijl laid traps but Mick was a wily bird and Susie was experienced. Mrs Van Zijl felt, knew that her daughter and Mick were enjoying a little boy and girl romance but poor Mrs Van Zijl could gather no proof.