Farah and I Sell out
now I was alone on the farm. It was no longer mine, but the people who had bought it had off ered to l et me stay in the house as long as i liked, and for legal reasons were leasing it to me for a Shilling a day.
I was selling my furniture, which gave Farah and me a good deal to do. We had to have all the china and table-glass on view upon the dinner-table; later on, when the table had been sold, we arranged it in long rows on the floor. The cuckoo of the clock sang out the hours arrogantly over the rows, then it was itself sold, and flew off. One day I sold my table-glass, and then in the night thought better of it, so that in the morning I drove to Nairobi and asked the lady who had bought it to call off the deal. I had no place to put the glass, but the fingers and lips of many friends had touched it, they had given me excellent wine to drink out of it; it was keeping an echo of old table-talk, and I did not want to part with it. After all, I thought, it would be an easy thing to break.
I had an old wooden screen with painted figures of Chinamen, Sultans and Negroes, with dogs on leads, which had had its place by the fire. There in the evenings, when the fire burned clear, the figures would come out, and serve as illustrations to the tales that I told Denys. After I had looked at it for a long time, I folded it up and packed it in a case, wherein the figures might all have a rest for the time being.
Lady McMillan was at this time finishing the McMillan Memorial in Nairobi, that she had built to her husband, Sir Northrup McMillan. It was a fine building, with a library and reading-rooms. She now drove out to the farm, sat and talked sadly of old days, and bought most of my old Danish furniture, that I had taken out from home with me, for the library. I was pleased to know that the cheerful, wise and hospitable chests and cabinets were to remain together, in a milieu of books and scholars, like a small circle of ladies who, in times of revolution, find an asylum in a University.
My own books I packed up in cases and sat on them, or dined on them. Books in a colony play a different part in your existence from what they do in Europe; there is a whole side of your life which there they alone take charge of; and on this account, according to their quality, you feel more grateful to them, or more indignant with them, than you will ever do in civilized countries.
The fictitious characters in the books run beside your horse on the farm, and walk about in the maize-fields. On their own, like intelligent soldiers, they find at once the quarters that suit them. On the morning after I had been reading “Crome Yellow” at night,—and I had never heard of the author’s name, but had picked up the book in a Nairobi bookshop, and was as pleased as if I had discovered a new green island in the sea,—as I was riding through a valley of the Game Reserve, a little duiker jumped up, and at once turned himself into a stag for Sir Hercules with his wife and his pack of thirty black and fawn-coloured pugs. All Walter Scott’s characters were at home in the country and might be met anywhere; so were Odysseus and his men, and strangely enough many figures from Racine. Peter Schlemihl had walked over the hills in seven-league boots, Clown Agheb the honeybee lived in my garden by the river.
Other things were sold out of the house, packed and sent off, so that the house, in the course of these months, became das Ding an sich, noble like a skull, a cool and roomy place to dwell in, with an echo to it, and the grass of the lawn growing long up to the doorstep. In the end there were no things in the rooms at all, and to my mind at the time they seemed, in this state, more fit to live in than they had been before.
I said to Farah, “This is how we ought to have had it all the time.”
Farah understood me very well, for all Somali have something of the ascetic in them. Farah during this time was set and concentrated upon assisting me in everything; but he was growing to look more and more like a true Somali, such as he had looked in Aden, where he had been sent to meet me, when I first came to Africa. He was much concerned about my old shoes, and confided to me that he was going to pray to God every day that they might last until I got to Paris.
During these months, Farah wore his best clothes every day. He had a lot of fine clothes: gold-embroidered Arab waistcoats that I had given him, and a very elegant scarlet gold-laced uniform waistcoat that Berkeley Cole had given him, and silk turbans in beautiful colours. Generally he kept them all in chests, and wore them only on special occasions. But now he put on the best he had. He walked one step behind me in the streets of Nairobi, or waited on the dirty stairs in the Government buildings and the lawyers’ offices, dressed like Solomon in all his glory. It took a Somali to do that.
I had now also got to deal with the fate of my horses and my dogs. I had all the time meant to shoot them, but many of my friends wrote to me and asked me to let them have them. After that, whenever I rode out and had the dogs with me, it did not seem fair on them to shoot them,—they had much life in them still. It took me a long time to decide the matter, I do not think that I have ever changed my mind so often over any other question. In the end I decided to give them to my friends.
I rode in to Nairobi on my favourite horse, Rouge, going very slowly and looking round to the North, and the South. It was a very strange thing to Rouge, I thought, to be going in by the Nairobi road, and not to be coming back. I installed him, with some trouble, in the horse-van of the Naivasha train, I stood in the van and felt, for the last time, his silky muzzle against my hands and my face. I will not let thee go, Rouge, except thou bless me. We had found together the riding-path down to the river amongst the Native shambas and huts, on the steep slippery descent he had walked as nimbly as a mule, and in the brown running river-water I had seen my own head and his close together. May you now, in a valley of clouds, eat carnations to the right and stock to the left.
The two young deerhounds that I had then, David and Dinah, Pania’s offspring, I gave to a friend on a farm near Gil-Gil, where they would get good hunting. They were very strong and playful, and when they were fetched in a car and drove off from the farm in great style, they panted, their heads close together over the side of the car, their tongues hanging out, as if they were on the track of a new splendid kind of game. The quick eyes and feet, and the live hearts, went away from the house and the plains, to breathe and sniff, and run happily on new grounds.
Some of my people now left the farm. As there was to be no coffee and no coffee-mill there any longer, Pooran Singh found himself out of work. He did not want to take on another job in Africa, and in the end he made up his mind to go back to India.
Pooran Singh, who mastered the minerals, outside of his workshop was like a child. He could not in the least realize that the end of the farm had come; he grieved over it, wept clear tears that ran down in his black beard, and for a long time worried me with his attempts to make me remain on the farm, and with his plans for keeping it going. He had taken much pride in our machinery, such as it was, and was now for a while as if nailed to the steam-engine and the coffee-dryer in the factory, his soft dark eyes consuming every nut in them. Then, when in the end he had been convinced of the hopelessness of the situation, he gave it all up in one movement, he was still very sad, but quite passive, and sometimes when I saw him he talked much to me of his travelling plans. When he went away, he carried no luggage with him but a small box of tools and soldering outfit, as if he had already sent his heart and life over the ocean, and there was now only his thin, unassuming, brown person and the soldering pan to follow it.
I wanted to give Pooran Singh a present before he left, and I had hoped that I might have something in my possession which he would like, but when I spoke to him of it he at once with great joy declared that he wanted a ring. I had no ring and no money to buy him one. This had happened already some months ago, at the time when Denys was coming out to dine at the farm, and so at dinner I told him of the position. Denys had once given me an Abyssinian ring of soft gold, to be screwed on so that it would fit any finger. He now thought that I was looking at it with the intention of giving it to Pooran Singh, for he used to complain that whenever he gave me anything I would at once give it away to my coloured people. To prevent such a thing happening, he took it from my hand and put it on his own and said that he would keep it until Pooran Singh had gone. It was a few days before he went to Mombasa, and in this way the ring was buried with him. Before Pooran Singh left I had, however, raised enough money by the sale of my furniture to buy him the ring he wanted in Nairobi. It was of heavy gold with a big red stone, that looked like glass. Pooran Singh was so happy about it that he shed a few tears again, and I believe that the ring helped him over his final parting with the farm and with his machinery. For his last week, he wore it every day, and whenever he came to the house, he held up his hand, and showed it to me with a radiant, gentle smile. At Nairobi station, the last thing that I saw of him was this slim dark hand, that had worked on the forge with such furious speed. It was stretched out through the window of the crowded and overheated Native railway carriage, in which Pooran Singh had placed himself upon his tool-box, and the red stone in it shone like a little star while it went up and down, waving good-bye.
Pooran Singh went to the Punjab to his family. He had not seen them for many years, but they had kept in touch with him by sending him photographs of themselves, which he preserved down in his little corrugated iron house by the factory, and showed to me with great tenderness and pride. I had several letters from Pooran Singh already from the boat to India. They all began in the same way: “Dear Madam. Good-bye.” and then went on to give me his news and to report on his adventures of the journey.
A week after Denys’s death one morning a strange thing happened to me.
I lay in bed and thought of the events of the last months, I tried to understand what it really was that had happened.
It seemed to me that I must have, in some way, got out of the normal course of human existence, into a maelstrom where I ought never to have been. Wherever I walked, the ground fell away under me, and the stars fell from the sky. I thought of the poem about Ragnarok, in which this fall of the stars is described, and of the verses about the dwarfs who sigh deeply in their caves in the mountains, and die from fear. All this could not be, I thought, just a coincidence of circumstances, what people call a run of bad luck, but there must be some central principle within it. If I could find it, it would save me: If I looked in the right place, I reflected, the coherence of things might become clear to me. I must, I thought, get up and look for a sign.
Many people think it an unreasonable thing, to be looking for a sign. This is because of the fact that it takes a particular state of mind to be able to do so, and not many people have ever found themselves in such a state. If in this mood, you ask for a sign, the answer cannot fail you; it follows as the natural consequence of the demand. In that same way an inspired card-player collects thirteen chance cards on the table, and takes up what is called a hand of cards—a unity. Where others see no call at all, he sees a grand slam staring him in the face. Is there a grand slam in the cards? Yes, to the right player.
I came out of the house looking for a sign, and wandered at haphazard towards the boys’ huts. They had just let out their chickens, which were running here and there amongst the houses. I stood for a little while and looked at them.
Fathima’s big white cock came strutting up before me. Suddenly he stopped, laid his head first on one side, and then on the other, and raised his comb. From the other side of the path, out of the grass, came a little grey Chameleon that was, like the cock himself, out on his morning reconnoitring. The cock walked straight upon it,—for the chickens eat these things,—and gave out a few clucks of satisfaction. The Chameleon stopped up dead at the sight of the cock. He was frightened, but he was at the same time very brave, he planted his feet in the ground, opened his mouth as wide as he possibly could, and to scare his enemy, in a flash he shot out his club-shaped tongue at the cock. The cock stood for a second as if taken aback, then swiftly and determinately he struck down his beak like a hammer and plucked out the Chameleon’s tongue.
The whole meeting between the two had taken ten seconds. Now I chased off Fathima’s cock, took up a big stone and killed the Chameleon, for he could not live without his tongue; the Chameleons catch the insects that they feed on with their tongue.
I was so frightened by what I had seen,—for it had been a gruesome and formidable thing in a miniature format,—that I went away and sat down on the stone seat by the house. I sat there for a long time, and Farah brought me out my tea, and put it on the table. I looked down on the stones and dared not look up, such a dangerous place did the world seem to me.
Very slowly only, in the course of the next few days, it came upon me that I had had the most spiritual answer possible to my call. I had even been in a strange manner honoured and distinguished. The powers to which I had cried had stood on my dignity more than I had done myself, and what other answer could they then give? This was clearly not the hour for coddling, and they had chosen to connive at my invocation of it. Great powers had laughed to me, with an echo from the hills to follow the laughter, they had said among the trumpets, among the cocks and Chameleons, Ha ha!
I was also pleased that I had been out this morning in time to save the Chameleon from a slow, painful death.
It was about this time,—although it was before I had sent away my horses,—that Ingrid Lindstrom came down from her farm at Njoro to stay with me for a little while. This was a friendly act of Ingrid’s, for it was difficult to her to get away from her own farm. Her husband, to make money to pay off their Njoro land, had taken a job with a big Sisal company in Tanganyika, and was at the time sweating down there at an altitude of two thousand feet, just as if Ingrid had been leasing him out in the quality of a slave, for the sake of the farm. She was therefore, in the meantime, running it on her own; she had extended her poultry yards, and her market-garden, and had got pigs, and broods of young turkeys up there, which she could ill afford to leave, even for a few days. All the same, for my sake she gave it all in charge of Kemosa, and rushed down to me as she would run to the assistance of a friend whose house was on fire, and she came without Kemosa this time, which was probably, under the circumstances, a good thing for Farah. Ingrid understood and realized to the bottom of her heart, with great strength, with something of the strength of the elements themselves, what it is really like, when a woman farmer has to give up her farm, and leave it.
While Ingrid was staying with me, we did not discuss either the past or the future, and did not mention the name of a single friend or acquaintance, we closed our two minds round the disaster of the hour. We walked together from the one thing on the farm to the other, naming them as we passed them, one by one, as if we were taking mental stock of my loss, or as if Ingrid were, on my behalf, collecting material for a book of complaints to be laid before destiny. Ingrid knew well enough from her own experience that there is no such book, but all the same the idea of it forms part of the livelihood of women.
We went down to the oxen’s boma, and sat on the fence, counting the oxen as they came in. Without words I pointed them out to Ingrid: “These oxen,” and without words she responded: “Yes, these oxen,” and recorded them in her book. We went round to the stables to feed the horses with sugar, and when they had finished it, I stretched out my sticky and be-slabbered palms, presenting them to Ingrid and crying, “These horses.” Ingrid sighed back laboriously, “Yes, these horses,” and noted them down. In my garden by the river she could not reconcile herself to the idea that I must leave the plants that I had brought from Europe; she wrung her hands over the mint, sage and lavender, and talked of them again later on, as if she were pondering on some scheme by which I might arrange to take them with me.
We spent the afternoons in contemplation of my small herd of Native cows which grazed on the lawn. I went through their age, characteristics, and yielding of milk, and Ingrid groaned and shrieked over the figures as if she had been bodily hurt. She scrutinized them carefully one by one, not with any view to trade, for my cows were going to my house-boys, but so as to value and weigh up my loss. She clung to the soft sweet-smelling calves; she had herself after long struggles got a few cows with calves on her farm, and against all reason, and against her own will, her deep furious glances blamed me for deserting my calves.
A man who was walking beside a bereaved friend and who was all the time in his own mind repeating the words: “Thank God it is not me,” would, I believe, feel badly about it, and would try to suppress the feeling. It is a different thing in two women who are friends, and of whom the one is manifesting her deep sympathy in the distress of the other. There it goes without saying that the more fortunate friend will all the while in her heart repeat the same thing: “Thank God it is not me.” It causes no bad feeling between the two, but on the contrary brings them closer together, and gives to the ceremony a personal element. Men, I think, cannot easily or harmoniously envy or triumph over one another. But it goes without saying that the bride triumphs over the bridesmaids, and that the lying-in-visitors envy the mother of the child; and none of the parties feel the worse on that account. A woman who had lost a child might show its clothes to a friend, aware that the friend was repeating in her heart: “Thank God it is not me,”—and it would be to both of them a natural and befitting thing. It was so with Ingrid and me. As we walked over the farm, I knew that she was thinking of her own farm, praising her luck that it was still hers, and holding on to it with all her might, and we got on very well on that. In spite of our old khaki coats and trousers, we were in reality a pair of mythical women, shrouded respectively in white and black, a unity, the Genii of the farmer’s life in Africa.
After a few days Ingrid said good-bye to me, and went up by the railway to Njoro.
I could no longer ride out, and my walks without the dogs had become very silent and sedate, but I still had my car, and I was glad to have her, for in these months I had much to do.
The fate of my squatters weighed on my mind. As the people who had bought the farm were planning to take up the coffee-trees, and to have the land cut up and sold as building-plots, they had no use for the squatters, and as soon as the deal was through, they had given them all six months’ notice to get off the farm. This to the squatters was an unforeseen and bewildering determination, for they had lived in the illusion that the land was theirs. Many of them had been born on the farm, and others had come there as small children with their fathers.
The squatters knew that in order to stay on the land they had got to work for me one hundred and eighty days out of each year, for which they were paid twelve shillings for every thirty days; these accounts were kept at the office of the farm. They also knew that they must pay the hut-tax to the Government, of twelve shillings to a hut, a heavy burden on a man, who with very little else in the world would own two or three grass-huts,—according to the number of his wives, for a Kikuyu husband must give each of his wives her own hut. My squatters had, from time to time, been threatened to be turned off the farm for an offence, so that they must in some way have felt that their position was not entirely unassailable. The hut-tax they much disliked, and when I collected it on the farm for the Government, they gave me a great deal to do, and much talk to listen to. But they had still looked upon these things as common vicissitudes of life, and had never given up the hope of somehow getting round them. They had not imagined that there might be, to them all, an underlying universal principle, which would at its own hour manifest itself in a fatal, crushing manner. For some time they chose to regard the decision of the new owners of the farm as a bugbear, which they could courageously ignore.
In some respects, although not in all, the white men fill in the mind of the Natives the place that is, in the mind of the white men, filled by the idea of God. I once had a contract drawn up with an Indian timber-merchant, it contained the words: an act of God. I was not familiar with the expression, and the lawyer who was drawing up the contract tried to explain it to me.
“No, no Madam,” he said, “You have not quite caught the meaning of the term. What is completely unforeseeable, and not consonant with rule or reason, that is an act of God.”
In the end, the certainty of their notice to quit brought the squatters in dark groups to my house. They felt the denunciation as a consequence of my departure from the farm,—my own bad luck was growing, and was spreading over them as well. They did not blame me for it, for that was talked out between us; they asked me where they were to go.
I found it, in more than one way, difficult to answer them. The Natives cannot, according to the law, themselves buy any land, and there was not another farm that I knew of, big enough to take them on as squatters. I told them that I had myself been told when I had made inquiries in the matter, that they must go into the Kikuyu Reserve and find land there. On that they again gravely asked me if they should find enough unoccupied land in the Reserve to bring all their cattle with them? And, they went on, would they be sure all to find land in the same place, so that the people from the farm should remain together, for they did not want to be separated?
I was surprised that they should be so determined to stay together, for on the farm they had found it difficult to keep peace, and had never had much good to say of one another. Still, here they all came, the big swaggering cattle-owners like Kathegu, Kaninu, and Mauge, hand in hand, so to say, with the humble unportioned workers of the soil like Waweru and Chotha, who did not own so much as one goat; and they were all filled with the same spirit, and as intent upon keeping one another as on keeping their cows. I felt that they were not only asking me for a place to live on, but that they were demanding their existence of me.
It is more than their land that you take away from the people, whose Native land you take. It is their past as well, their roots and their identity. If you take away the things that they have been used to see, and will be expecting to see, you may, in a way, as well take their eyes. This applies in a higher degree to the primitive people than to the civilized, and animals again will wander back a long way, and go through danger and sufferings, to recover their lost identity, in the surroundings that they know.
The Masai when they were moved from their old country, North of the railway line, to the present Masai Reserve, took with them the names of their hills, plains and rivers; and gave them to the hills, plains and rivers in the new country. It is a bewildering thing to the traveller. The Masai were carrying their cut roots with them as a medicine, and were trying, in exile, to keep their past by a formula.
Now, my squatters were clinging to one another from the same instinct of self-preservation. If they were to go away from their land, they must have people round them who had known it, and so could testify to their identity. Then they could still, for some years, talk of the geography and the history of the farm, and what one had forgotten the other would remember. As it was, they were feeling the shame of extinction falling on them.
“Go Msabu,” they said to me, “go for us to the Selikali, and obtain from them that we may take all our cattle with us to the new place, and that we shall all remain together where we are going.”
With this began for me a long pilgrimage, or beggar’s journey, which took up my last months in Africa.
On the Kikuyu’s errand I first went to the District Commissioners of Nairobi and Kiambu, then to the Native Department and the Land Office, and in the end to the Governor, Sir Joseph Byrne, whom I had not met till then, for he was only just out from England. In the end I forgot what I went for. I was washed in and out as by the tide. Sometimes I had to stay for a whole day in Nairobi, or to go in two or three times in a day. There were always a number of squatters stationed by my house, when I came back, but they never asked me for my news, they kept watch there in order to communicate to me, by some Native magic, stamina on the course.
The Government Officials were patient and obliging people. The difficulties in the matter were not of their making: it was really a problem to find, in the Kikuyu Reserve, an unoccupied stretch of land big enough to take in the full number of the people and their cattle.
Most of the Officials had been in the country for a long time, and knew the Natives well. They would only vaguely suggest the resource of making the Kikuyu sell out some of their stock. For they knew that under no circumstances would they do so, and by bringing their herds on to a place that was too small for them, they would cause, in years to come, endless trouble with their neighbours in the Reserve, for other District Commissioners up there to go into, and settle.
But when we came to the second request of the squatters, that they should remain together, the people in authority said that there was no real need for that.
“Oh reason not the need,” I thought, “our basest beggars are in the poorest things superfluous”,—and so on. All my life I have held that you can class people according to how they may be imagined behaving to King Lear. You could not reason with King Lear, any more than with an old Kikuyu, and from the first he demanded too much of everybody; but he was a king. It is true that the African Native has not handed over his country to the white man in a magnificent gesture, so that the case is in some ways different from that of the old king and his daughters; the white men took over the country as a Protectorate. But I bore in mind that not very long ago, at a time that could still be remembered, the Natives of the country had held their land undisputed, and had never heard of the white men and their laws. Within the general insecurity of their existence the land to them was still steadfast. Some of them were carried off by the slave-traders and were sold at slave-markets, but some of them always remained. Those who were taken away, in their exile and thraldom all over the Eastern world, would long back to the highlands, for that was their own land. The old dark clear-eyed Native of Africa, and the old dark clear-eyed Elephant,—they are alike; you see them standing on the ground, weighty with such impressions of the world around them as have been slowly gathered and heaped up in their dim minds; they are themselves features of the land. Either one of the two might find himself quite perplexed by the sight of the great changes that are going on all round him, and might ask you where he was, and you would have to answer him in the words of Kent: “In your own kingdom, Sir.”
In the end, just as I was beginning to feel that I must drive in to Nairobi and back, and talk on in Government Offices all my life, I was suddenly informed that my application had been granted. The Government had agreed to give out a piece of the Dagoretti Forest Reserve to the squatters of my farm. Here they could form a settlement of their own, not far from their old place, and after the disappearance of the farm they could still preserve their faces and their names, as a community.
The news of this decision was received on the farm with deep silent emotion. It was impossible to tell from the faces of the Kikuyu whether they had all the time had faith in this issue of the case, or whether they had despaired of it. As soon as it was settled, they immediately entered on a course of multifarious complicated requests and propositions that I refused to deal with. They still stayed on by my house, watching me in a novel way. Natives have such feeling for, and faith in, fortune, that now, after our one success, they may have begun to trust that all was going to be well, and that I was to stay on the farm.
As for me myself, the settlement of the squatters’ fate was a great appeasement to me. I have not often felt so contented.
Then, after two or three days, the feeling came upon me that my work in the country had been brought to an end and that now I might go. The coffee harvest on the farm was finished, and the mill standing still, the house was empty, the squatters had got their land. The rains were over, and the new grass was already long on the plains and in the hills.
The plan which I had formed in the beginning, to give in in all minor matters, so as to keep what was of vital importance to me, had turned out to be a failure. I had consented to give away my possessions one by one, as a kind of ransom for my own life, but by the time that I had nothing left, I myself was the lightest thing of all, for fate to get rid of.
There was a full moon in those days, it shone into the bare room and laid the pattern of the windows on the floor. I thought that the moon might be looking in and wondering how long I meant to stay on, in a place from which everything else had gone. “Oh no,” said the moon, “time means very little to me.”
I would have liked to have stayed on until I could have seen the squatters installed in their new place. But the surveying of the land took time, and it was uncertain when they would be able to move on to it.