Sometimes visitors from Europe drifted into the farm like wrecked timber into still waters, turned and rotated, till in the end they were washed out again, or dissolved and sank.
Old Knudsen, the Dane, had come to the farm, sick and blind, and stayed there for the time it took him to die, a lonely animal. He walked along the roads all bent over his misery; for long periods he was without speech, for he had no strength left over from the hard task of carrying it, or, when he spoke, his voice, like the voice of the wolf or hyena, was in itself a wail.
But when he recovered breath, and for a little while was without pain, then sparks flew from the dying fire once more. He would then come to me and explain how he had got to fight with a morbid melancholic disposition in himself, an absurd tendency to see things black. It must be outreasoned, for the outward circumstances they were not amiss, they were, the devil take him, not to be despised. Only pessimism, pessimism,—that was a bad vice!
It was Knudsen who advised me to burn charcoal and sell it to the Indians of Nairobi, at a time when we were, on the farm, more than usually hard up. There were thousands of Rupees in it, he assured me. And it could not fail under the aegis of Old Knudsen, for he had, at one time of his tumultuous career, been to the utmost North of Sweden, and there had learned the craft at his finger’s end. He took upon himself to instruct the Natives in the art. While we were thus working together in the wood I talked much with Knudsen.
Charcoal-burning is a pleasant job. There is undoubtedly something intoxicating about it, and it is known that charcoal-burners see things in a different light from other people; they are given to poetry and taradiddle, and wood-demons come and keep them company. Charcoal is a beautiful thing to turn out, when your kiln is burnt and opened up, and the contents spread on the ground. Smooth as silk, matter defecated, freed of weight and made imperishable, the dark experienced little mummy of the wood.
The mise-en-sc`ene of the art of charcoal-burning is in itself as lovely as possible. As we were cutting down the undergrowth only,—for charcoal cannot be made from thick timber,—we were still working under the crowns of the tall trees. In this stillness and shade of the African forest, the cut wood smelt like gooseberries; and the piercing, fresh, rank, sour smell of the burning kiln was as bracing as a sea breeze. The whole place had a theatrical atmosphere which, under the Equator, where there are no theatres, was of infinite charm. The thin blue whirls of smoke from the kilns arose at regular distances, and the dark kilns themselves looked like tents on the stage; the place was a smugglers’ or soldiers’ camp in a romantic Opera. The dark figures of the Natives moved noiselessly amongst them. Where the underwoods have been cleared away in an African forest you will always get a great number of butterflies, which seem to like to cluster on the stubs. It was all mysterious and innocent. In the surroundings, the small crooked form of Old Knudsen fitted in wonderfully well, flickering about, red-topped, agile, now that he had got a favourite job to attend to, sneering and encouraging, like a Puck grown old and blind and very malicious. He was conscientious about his work and surprisingly patient with his Native pupils. We did not always agree. In Paris, where as a girl I went to a painting school, I had learnt that olive-wood will make the best charcoal, but Knudsen explained that olive had no knots in it, and, seven thousand devils in Hell, every one knew that the heart of things was in their knots.
A particular circumstance here in the wood soothed Knudsen’s hot temper. The African trees have a delicate foliage, mostly digitate, so that when you have cleared away the dense undergrowth, so to say hollowing out the forest, the light is like the light in a beechwood in May at home, when the leaves are just unfolded, or hardly unfolded yet. I drew Knudsen’s attention to the likeness, and the idea pleased him, for all the time of the charcoal-burning he kept up and developed a fantasy: we were on a Whitsunday picnic in Denmark. An old hollow tree he christened Lottenburg, after a place of amusement near Copenhagen. When I had a few bottles of Danish beer hidden in the depths of Lottenburg, and invited him to a drink there, he condescended to think it a good joke.
When we had all our kilns lighted we sat down and talked of life. I learned much about Knudsen’s past life, and the strange adventures that had fallen to him wherever he had wandered. You had, in these conversations, to talk of Old Knudsen himself, the one righteous man,—or you would sink into that black pessimism against which he was warning you. He had experienced many things: shipwrecks, plague, fishes of unknown colouring, drinking-spouts, water-spouts, three contemporaneous suns in the sky, false friends, black villainy, short successes, and showers of gold that instantly dried up again. One strong feeling ran through his Odyssey: the abomination of the law, and all its works, and all its doings. He was a born rebel, he saw a comrade in every outlaw. A heroic deed meant to him in itself an act of defiance against the law. He liked to talk of kings and royal families, jugglers, dwarfs and lunatics, for them he took to be outside the law,—and also of any crime, revolution, trick, and prank, that flew in the face of the law. But for the good citizen he had a deep contempt, and law-abidingness in any man was to him the sign of a slavish mind. He did not even respect, or believe in, the law of gravitation, which I learnt while we were felling trees together: he saw no reason why it should not be—by unprejudiced, enterprising people—changed into the exact reverse.
Knudsen was eager to imprint on my mind the names of people he had known, preferably of swindlers and scoundrels. But he never in his narrations mentioned the name of a woman. It was as if time had swept his mind both of Elsinore’s sweet girls, and of the merciless women of the harbour-towns of the world. All the same, when I was talking with him I felt in his life the constant presence of an unknown woman. I cannot say who she may have been: wife, mother, school-dame or wife of his first employer,—in my thoughts I called her Madam Knudsen. I imagined her short because he was so short himself. She was the woman who ruins the pleasure of man, and therein is always right. She was the wife of the curtain-lectures, and the housewife of the big cleaning-days, she stopped all enterprises, she washed the faces of boys, and snatched away the man’s glass of gin from the table before him, she was law and order embodied. In her claim of absolute power she had some likeness to the female deity of the Somali women, but Madam Knudsen did not dream of enslaving by love, she ruled by reasoning and righteousness.
Knudsen must have met her at a young age, when his mind was soft enough to receive an ineffaceable impression. He had fled from her to the Sea, for the Sea she loathes, and there she does not come, but ashore again in Africa he had not escaped her, she was still with him. In his wild heart, under his white-red hair, he feared her more than he feared any man, and suspected all women of being in reality Madam Knudsen in disguise.
Our charcoal-burning in the end was no financial success. From time to time it would happen that one of our kilns caught fire, and there was our profit gone up in smoke. Knudsen himself was much concerned about our failure, and speculated hard upon it, at last he declared that nobody in the world could burn charcoal if they did not have a fair supply of snow at hand.
Knudsen also helped me to make a pond on the farm. The farm-road in one place ran through a wide cup of grassy ground, there was a spring here and I thought out the plan of building a dam below it and turning the place into a lake. You are always short of water in Africa, it would be a great gain to the cattle to be able to drink in the field, and save themselves the long journey down to the river. This idea of a dam occupied all the farm day and night, and was much discussed; in the end, when it was finished, it was to all of us a majestic achievement. It was two hundred feet long. Old Knudsen took a great interest in it, and taught Pooran Singh to fabricate a dam-scoop. We had trouble with the dam when it was built, because it would not hold water when, after a long dry period, the big rains began; it gave way in a number of places and was half washed away more than once. It was Knudsen who struck upon the scheme of strengthening the earthwork by driving the farm oxen and the Squatters’ stock across the dam whenever they came to the pond to drink. Every goat and sheep had to contribute to the great work and stamp the structure. He had some big bloody fights with the little herdboys down here, for Knudsen insisted that the cattle should walk over slowly, but the wild young Totos wanted them galloping across, tails in the air. In the end, when I had sided with Knudsen and he had got the better of the Totos, the long file of cattle, sedately marching along the narrow bank looked against the sky like Noah’s procession of animals going into the ark; and Old Knudsen himself, counting them, his stick under his arm, looked like the boatbuilder Noah, content in the thought that everybody but himself was soon to drown.
In the course of time, I got a vast expanse of water here, seven feet deep in places; the road went through the pond, it was very pretty. Later on we even built two more dams lower down and in this way obtained a row of ponds, like pearls upon a string. The pond now became the heart of the farm. It was always much alive, with a ring of cattle and children round it, and in the hot season, when waterholes dried up in the plains and the hills, the birds came to the farm: herons, ibis, kingfishers, quail, and a dozen varieties of geese and duck. In the evening, when the first stars sprang out in the sky, I used to go and sit by the pond, and then the birds came home. Swimming birds have a purposeful flight, unlike that of other birds: they are on a journey, going from one place to another,—and what perspective is there not in the reading wild swimmers! The duck concluded their orbit over the glass-clear sky, to swoop noiselessly into the dark water like so many arrow-heads let off backwards by a heavenly archer. I once shot a crocodile in the pond, it was a strange thing, for he must have wandered twelve miles from the Athi river to get there. How did he know that there would be water now, where it had never been before?
When the first pond was finished, Knudsen communicated to me the plan of putting fish into it. We had in Africa a kind of perch, which was good to eat, and we dwelt much upon the idea of rich fishing on the farm. It was not, however, an easy thing to get them, the Game-Department had set out perch in ponds but would let nobody fish there yet. But Knudsen confided to me his knowledge of a pond of which no one else in the world knew, where we could get as many fish as we wanted. We would drive there, he explained, draw a net through the pond, and take the fish back in the car in tins and vats in which they would keep alive on the way if we remembered to put water-weeds in with the water. He was so keen on his scheme that he trembled while developing it to me; with his own hands he made one of his inimitable fishing-nets for it. But as the time for the expedition drew near it took on a more and more mysterious aspect. It should be undertaken, he held, on a full moon night, about midnight. At first we had meant to take three boys with us, then he reduced the number to two and to one, and kept asking whether he was absolutely trustworthy? In the end he declared that it would be better that he and I should go by ourselves. I thought this a bad plan for we would not be able to carry the tins into the car, but Knudsen insisted that it would be by far the best, and added that we ought to tell no one of it.
I had friends in the Game-Department, and I could not help it, I had to ask him: “Knudsen, to whom do these fish that we are going to catch, really belong?” Not a word answered Knudsen. He spat, a regular old sailor’s spit,—stretched out his foot in the old patched shoe and rubbed out the spitting on the ground, turned on his heel and walked off deadly slowly. He drew his head down between his shoulders as he went, now he could no longer see at all, but was fumbling before him with his stick, he was once more a beaten man, a homeless fugitive in a low, cold world. And as if in his gesture he had pronounced a spell I stood upon the spot where he had left me, victorious, in Madam Knudsen’s slippers.
The fishing project was never again approached between Knudsen and me. Only some time after his death did I, with the assistance of the Game Department, set perch into the pond. They thrived there, and added their silent, cool, mute, restive life to the other life of the pond. In the middle of the day one could, on passing the pond, see them standing near the surface, like fish made out of dark glass in the dim sunny water. My Toto Tumbo was sent to the pond with a primitive fishing-rod and drew up a perch of two pounds whenever an unexpected guest arrived at the house.
When I had found old Knudsen dead on the farm-road, I sent in a runner to the Police of Nairobi and reported his death. I had meant to bury him on the farm, but late at night two police officers came out in a car to fetch him, and brought a coffin with them. In the meantime a thunderstorm had broken out, and we had had three inches of rain, for this was just at the beginning of the long rainy season. We drove down to his house through torrents and sheets of water; as we carried Knudsen out to the car the thunder rolled over our heads like cannons, and the flashes of lightning stood on all sides thick as ears in a cornfield. The car had no chains to it and could hardly keep on the road, it swung from one side of it to another. Old Knudsen would have liked it, he would have been satisfied with his Exit from the farm.
Afterwards I had a disagreement with the Nairobi Municipality over his funeral arrangements, it developed into a heated argument and I had to go into town about it more than once. It was a legacy left to me by Knudsen, a last tilt, by proxy, at the face of the law. Thus I was no longer Madam Knudsen, but a brother.