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So Chris Welman said that he could sympathise with Jurie Steyn, since having your mother-in-law coming to stay with you was about the oldest kind of trouble that there was in the world.
And he always used to think that with himself it would be different. For that reason he had been, in the past, not a little impatient when other men had spoken about how much sorrow had come into their lives from that moment when they opened the top part of the front door and there was an elderly little lady standing there with suitcases.
"Looking as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth," Jurie Steyn declared.
It was because those married men that spoke like that didn't have proper feeling, he used to think when he was first married, Chris Welman went on. And he used to think that a man must have a very mean heart if he didn't have room in it for a frail little old lady standing at a front door with -
"Not so frail little, either," Jurie Steyn interjected. "And with her hair fastened back in a tight bun. And sniffing suspiciously if there's a smell of drink, before she's got her foot right over the front step."
He also used to think, Chris Welman continued, that if for no other reason than just for his wife's sake a man should be able to force himself to act in a kindly way towards his mother-in-law; no matter what he thought of her privately.
If he was anything of a man at all, that was, Chris Welman used to believe. And he never saw anything funny, either, in jokes about mother-in-law. He used to shake his head in a pitying way when a man told what was to be a comic story about a mother-in-law.
"And her saying 'It's all right, there's nothing in that suitcase that can break,' while you're carrying it inside for her," Jurie Steyn said. "Trying to make out that it's through drink that you stumbled over a chair, when all the time it was because you were nervous."
But Chris Welman said that his own ideas underwent a considerable degree of modification as a result of his mother-in-law having come to pay them a somewhat extended visit.
"Now I come to think of it," Chris Welman remarked, "she didn't really stay very long. It only looked like that. And then when it came to the time it was understood that she would be going back again, she at the last moment stretched out her stay. Once more, I must be honest and admit that she didn't stretch it out very much. At it wasn't through her own doing, either, that it happened like that. But people who new me well, and whom I hadn't come across over that time, told me how much I had aged since they had last seen me.
"Anyway, why my mother-in-law stretched out her visit was because there was trouble with the Government lorry that she had to go back on. It took the lorry-driver and his assistant the best part of two hours to get the engine going again. And that was the length of time that my mother-in-law stretched out her visit. As I say, I don't claim it was her fault in any way. Although actually, I'm not so sure, either. I mean, when I think of some of the things she did get up to -"
All the same, Chris Welman added, he even today couldn't see anything funny in mother-in-law jokes. He had noticed that that kind of joke was always told by a coarse kind of person with no real feelings. Just let such a person have the experience of having his mother-in-law come and stay with him - just once, Chris Welman said - and that person would never laugh at a mother-in-law joke again. In fact, he doubted if that person would ever again in his life laugh at anything, very much.
"The worst thing," Jurie Steyn announced, "is the comparisons she makes. Not so much in words, either, perhaps, as in other ways. And by hints. How her other daughter that's married to the booking-office clerk has got coal to burn in her kitchen stove and hasn't got to go out with a Price's candles box to pick up cow-dung -"
"Not today she can't," At Naude interjected. "Not with the coal shortage in the towns that the newspapers are full of. Today she'd be glad to have just that candles box to burn, if I know anything."
"Or the comparison she makes with her younger son, Jebediah, who is now a deacon in the church," Jurie Steyn continued. "Well, I'm not saying anything about Jebediah, the way he is today. Because I only knew Jebediah before he was a church deacon, and that was on the diggings. Well, the diggings would hardly be a place for a church deacon to feel at home on, especially the kind of life that was lead on the diggings in those days. But I'll say this much for Jebediah - that he never once let on how hard it was for him to fit into that low life, or what a nightmare it was for him. You would never imagine what a suffering it was for him to stay in that sinful place - the way he took to it, I mean.
"And I suppose Jebediah would still be there today, sitting in a saloon bar and doing his best to close his eyes to the disgrace around him, if it wasn't that the diggers' committee afterwards called on him and ran him off the diggings. For some reason, while they were talking to him, the diggers' committee were also pouring tar on Jebediah, and they were shaking feathers onto Jebediah out of a pillow that they had brought along." And that was that same Jebediah, Jurie Steyn said, that his mother-in-law was today holding up to him as an example. Not always in so many words, perhaps, Jurie Steyn said, but certainly by way of hint and allusion.
"And if I try ever so slightly, and without mentioning anything near the worst, even," Jurie Steyn said, to give her perhaps different idea of her Jebediah, then she just sits back and smiles. She acts like she feels sorry for me because she thinks I'm jealous of Jebediah. What came out of that pillow-case seemed to be muscovy duck feathers, mostly.
It was pretty much that sort of thing in his own case, Chris Welman said, that led to so radical a change being effected in his outlook.
"I don't think I would have minded so much if it was just her son that my mother-in-law said was so much better than me, the time she came to stay with us," Chris Welman said. "I think I could have stood for that. In any case, I was at school with her son, and he used to copy spelling off me in the class. And that used to make me feel very proud - to see him copying. Because until then I used to think that I was the worst at spelling in the whole school.
Later on, however, the schoolmaster was to declare openly that that other pupil (that nobody knew then would one day be Chris Welman's brother-in-law) was the worst at spelling in the whole of the schoolmaster's experience.
"And no one guessed," Chris Welman said, "that why he was so bad was because he was all the time copying off me. And so you can see that, no matter what his mother might say, I could never have anything against him. But it was her late husband that she would always talk about. That and -"
"Yes," Jurie Steyn remarked, "And drink."
Because I would take a little mampoer brandy now and again to cheer myself up," Chris Welman continued, "she would act as though I was a miserable lost drunkard that regularly beat his wife black and blue. And I used to get to feeling that way about myself, too, that I was a lost miserable drunkard -"
Gysbert van Tonder interposed, then, with the comment that as far as he could see the visit of Chris Welman's mother-in-law could only have done good. There could have been no flies on her, Gysbert van Tonder said, for her to have been able to sum up so quickly what was Chris Welman's trouble. Although she would have been pretty unobservant if she hadn't noticed - the moment she stepped in at the front door, even. And that was all the thanks she got for it - with Chris Welman talking so ungratefully about her now, and all.
He only hoped, Gysbert van Tonder said, that Chris Welman didn't forget himself so far as to beat his mother-in-law black and blue as well. All the same, he added, he could quite understand, now, why that kindly old lady's visit should have upset Chris Welman so much, seeing that she just meant everything for the best. It was through no fault of hers that Chris Welman was what he was.
"If you had taken her reproof to heart more," Gysbert van Tonder said, "you would have been a different man today. Instead of being just hardened in your awful habits and not being able to find a good word to say about your own wife's mother. And all that goes for Jurie Steyn, too."
Before the two personages so addressed could think of a suitable reply, At Naude mentioned that he had the same afternoon seen Jurie Steyn's mother-in-law. She was walking across the veld. Walking at a good pace, At Naude said.
"Yes, I've already told you that I saw her put her hat on and go out," Jurie Steyn said. But he added that he was not going to be foolishly hopeful about it, seeing that she hadn't taken her suitcases with her.
"About her late husband, now," Chris Welman said, reverting to the subject of his own mother-in-law. "It was when she stood looking at the front of the house that she said that was where her late husband was different, now. Her late husband would never have allowed the front of his house to get so dilapidated, she said. Not even when he had got so with the rheumatics that sometimes he wouldn't show his face outside his bedroom for days on end. You see, in those days they used to call it rheumatics. Well, anyway, it was for that reason that I got out the old step-ladder and a bucket of whitewash and started on the front of the house.
"And then, of course, my mother-in-law had to come past and say that one thing about her late husband was that he would never splash the whitewash on just anyhow, but that he would apply it with even strokes of the brush and not get his face and the brush-handle and his clothes all messed up.
"And then when the string of the step-ladder broke on account of its being so old, she didn't even ask me did I get hurt falling or could she help me get my foot out of the whitewash bucket. She just said that her late husband would never have got on to a step-ladder drunk and then have tried to murder her from there."
So Gysbert van Tonder said, well, what did Chris Welman expect? If Chris Welman got on to a step-ladder with a bucket of whitewash and he was full of mampoer, there would be almost bound to be trouble, Gysbert van Tonder said.
"I've already told you it was the string," Chris Welman answered, sounding surly. "In any case, during all the time that my mother-in-law stayed with us I never once had a drink in the house. Before my mother-in-law came I moved my brandy still out of the wagon-house and went and hid it in an old potato-shed in the kloof that I didn't use anymore because it was too far out of the way. That was where I used to go when I needed a drink then - all that far."
Gysbert van Tonder made a clicking sort of sound, to show how upset he was at the thought that a man could be so degraded. The way he was carrying on, it looked as though it was Gysbert van Tonder and not Jurie Steyn's brother-in-law, Jebediah, that was the church deacon.
"And what I'll never forget," Chris Welman proceeded, "is that afternoon when my cattle herd, 'Mbulu, came running to tell me that the old miesies had come to him in the veld and had sent him to fetch the police at Nietverdiend. But 'Mbulu didn't go for the police, of course. He knew better than that. He came and fetched me instead. I hurried along with him and he led me straight to where my mother-in-law was standing right in front of disused potato shed. 'It's too terrible,' she said when I arrived. 'I only hope the police get here in time. Do you know what's inside this shed? No, I'm sure you never guess. It's a still. It means that the Bechuanas on your farm are making brandy here in secret. If you stand here and look through the crack in the door you can see it's a still.'
"I pretended to look, of course, and I said, yes, she was right, and it was too terrible to think of how out of hand the Bechuanas were getting. I would talk to them about it very severely, I said, seeing that what they were doing was so low and illegal, and all. But, of course, we mustn't bring the police into it, I said. We didn't want that kind of trouble on the farm. But you've got no idea how hard it was to dissuade my mother-in-law, who had worked it out that the sergeant from Nietverdiend could get there in under an hour.
"In the end I was actually pleading with her to give those shameless Bechuanas another chance: even if (as she said) their making illicit mampoer brandy was worse than if they had still been cannibals. Afterwards she relented. But it was only after I had satisfied her that I had broken every jar in the potato shed and there was nothing left of the still but a few yards of twisted brass tubing that you could never put together again."
Chris Welman sighed. "And to think that it was one of the finest brandy still in the whole of Groot Marico," he said, finally.
Jurie Steyn was looking strangely agitated.
"But where did you say she was going," he asked of At Naude, "walking over the veld with her hat on? I mean, what direction did she take? Talk quick man."
At Naude explained to the best of his ability.
"Oh," Jurie Steyn ejaculated, "Oh, my God."