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Besides the everlasting worry of keeping the English community in hand, the Boers have been visited by other plagues, such as rinderpest. In 1897 such a calamity befell them, and although the rich farmers did not suffer materially, the poorer class experienced reverses sufficient to discourage them for life. The mistake made was simply this (and it is characteristic of the Boers): every individual farmer and owner of stock exercised his own judgment throughout, and the most drastic results followed as a consequence. Temporary excitement naturally took the place of clear judgment. A man may be possessed of all his faculties and yet lack that knowledge which would save 95 per cent. of his cattle. The desire to save the cattle was there, but the farmers were too prone to accept the first method which turned up. Without even considering thoroughly the merits and demerits of any particular method, they rushed at it with the same prospect of success as might be attributed to a blind man going in search of the North Pole. Of course the system would 'either kill or cure.' That was how the majority of them put it. The veterinary surgeons received very little encouragement. If a Boer makes up his mind that his cattle are going to die, he likes to have all the honour of killing them himself, and he does not want any vet. about his place, propounding advanced theories which he does not understand. Added to this, it appears that when the disease first made its appearance in the country, certain vets, made themselves so ridiculous in the eyes of the farmers who invited them to inspect sick cattle, that distrust immediately took the place of suspicion, and confidence was never established.
The farmers who managed to save a considerable number of cattle were not slow to make hay while the sun shone, and some of them may probably have turned up their noses at the mere mention of the Yukon goldfields. Prospecting for gold is a somewhat risky business, but the Boer looks upon transactions in salted oxen as eminently satisfactory, more especially where the buyer negotiates the risks. Nothing affords him more pleasure than to hand over twenty or thirty oxen, and receive in exchange twenty-five pounds per head. But, unlike the English problem, rinderpest is not always with the Boer.
In this connection there is a story to the effect that a certain Boer farmer discovered one day that his cattle had contracted a very serious disease, and he was advised by the Government vet., who happened to be passing that way, to inoculate immediately, and after the lapse of ten days to repeat the process. When the vet. returned a few weeks later he was surprised to learn that the majority of the cattle had died.
'But that was impossible if you acted on the instructions I gave you,' he said to the farmer.
'Ja!' answered the latter, 'that may be, but I didn't do what you told me; I only inoculated once.'
'And why didn't you do it a second time?' pursued the vet.
'Oh,' replied the Boer, 'because the vrouw said I hadn't to.'
The Boer seldom does anything without first consulting his wife, and it is hinted that the wives made a very bad job of the rinderpest. The vrouw steers the ship. It is so when the whole family goes to town to make the half-yearly purchases. In the stores the husband will be found in deep and earnest conversation with his better half, relative perhaps to the quantity of barbed wire or coffee or woolpacks—anything and everything required at the time. All this would seem to point to a plain fact, namely, that the vrouw not only excels in physical proportions, but also in the matter of brains. There can be no doubt about the first mentioned, and there seems to be little question about the other as well. It is authoritatively stated that at the time of the Boer War the women were so bitter against the English that they spurred on the men to do things which they themselves deemed foolhardy. This anti-English feeling seems to have been intensified since then, and it is often jocularly remarked by Englishmen in the country that so long as an enemy makes things square with the womenfolk they need have no fear of the men. The women may have the reputation of knowing and doing more than the men, but they are certainly not thrifty. They are kind to travellers (provided they come on horseback and not on foot); but their kindness is too often spoiled by the dirt and general undesirability of the atmosphere within their dwellings. A traveller can appreciate a cup of coffee after a long ride; but he likes to have it in a clean dish, and it rather damps his ardour when he finds that he is expected to take the mud along with it.
In this connection there is still another story. This story is related by a commercial traveller, and in order to establish its authenticity it is only necessary to remark that it has been related by at least six different commercial travellers, and in every case the incident has occurred within the experience of each and all.
The commercial gentleman (no matter which one) having been overtaken on the road by a severe thunderstorm, and arriving at a spruit which he found he could not then cross with safety, put back to a small farmhouse near by. After much parley on both sides, the Boer who owned the place agreed to give the traveller and his driver shelter for the night, provided they would sleep in an outhouse, where the horses could also be put up. Being only too glad to obtain shelter of any sort, the traveller readily accepted the offer. At this point each traveller who has told the story breaks into a graphic description of how he passed the night, and how many rats he and the driver killed, and how much of his clothes they devoured, and how he couldn't sleep because of the presence of pigs and fowls in addition, which seemed to resent the invasion. Then comes the dawn of another day, and, which is more important (before its appearance), breakfast. A cloth was spread on a box in the mud-floor dwelling, and eggs and coffee placed thereon. The commercial was evidently expected to eat the eggs anyhow, so long as he did eat them; for there was nothing visible in the shape of a spoon. The Boer and his vrouw did not put in an appearance at breakfast, no doubt disdaining to look upon an Englishman any more than was absolutely necessary. He had almost concluded this rude and somewhat unsatisfactory meal when the vrouw entered. She was fat and dirty, and her clothing had apparently been renewed from time immemorial by much mending. She now rested her great hands on her hips, and calmly surveyed the English party and the breakfast-table for a few seconds. Then she spoke, in Dutch; but he understood—too well:
'Have you finished?'
'Yes,' he replied in the 'lands taal'; 'but surely you are in a very great hurry. I will pay you well for the food and shelter.'
'That's nothing,' continued the vrouw in a business-like tone; 'I only want the tablecloth so that I can get the bed made.'