While Oudoom slices off another succulent piece of meat from the side of the sheep’s head, Hartford pokes a listless fork at the rice on his plate.
“You know, Mister Hartford, life is a strange condition.” Oudoom smacks his lips and pauses to admire the taste. Mevrou can do many things – but the way she prepares this dish must rate as one of her best achievements. “It takes all kinds of men and women to make the world work. Let me tell you a story…”
There once was a farmer who sowed corn. He slowly walked up and down the tilled pasture, sowing the seed the traditional way. Of course, some seeds fell in clumps, others were scattered more evenly, and even others fell on the rocky sides of the prepared earth. The rains came and he would walk down to the meadow every day to see how the plants grew. He was happy, for he anticipated a rich reward on his labour.
On the day before he wanted to start reaping, a fire raced across the veld. The man tried in vain to stop the flames – but within minutes his crop was destroyed. The farmer was angry and accused God for letting him down.
“You gave the rain. You gave the sunshine. You made the corn grow. And now, just as I was to harvest, You took it away. Why did You do this? How could You allow it?
You know what God did? He simply smiled – and then made the man repeat his accusation. “You see,” God said, “you sowed some seeds, and then expected Me to do the rest. What I did, was to show you My power. It is within My power to give – and also to take.
Then God took the man to the rocky ground around the meadow. Here, the few scattered seeds also produced plants. They were stunted and not half as beautiful as those on the pasture had been, but they did have enough corn on them to carry the farmer and his family through the winter.
You know what the farmer did the next season? He did his bit as well. He made fire breaks, weeded the patch of ground every week, took care of any bugs and worms he found. Every day, that summer, he toiled in the land, while God gave the sunshine and the rain.
The farmer told his wife they were going to have a record crop. Together they planned a long holiday, a new house and maybe even a new car.
And God heard them and became exceedingly angry. This time, the fire not only destroyed the crop, but the entire farm.
Oudoom sits back with a satisfied smile. With the story over, he can now dig into his meal with gusto.
Henry Hartford II sits back with a puzzled frown. How is he to put up with this type of treatment? No, he won’t sit quietly or back off!
“I beg your pardon, but what is the point of your little narrative? That God is a God of destruction?”
Oudoom finishes the next morsel before answering.
“God knows the hearts of every one of us. He rewards generosity and grace. It is also in His power to take back what – in reality – belongs to Him. We are but temporary tenants on His farm, Mister Hartford. If we toil in honesty – and share what we receive – we will be blessed by His grace.
“So, my dear man, the point of the story is all of us. Me. Mevrou. You. Stevens. Kenton. We all got a piece of land to work on. How we toil, will determine the harvest. What we with the harvest, will determine our joy. And that, Mister Hartford, is the point. The beauty of life is the joy we find in it – and the joy we share. Joy. Beauty. Love. That’s all we need. Without it, we have nothing.
“Tell me, Mister Hartford: when last did you experience joy”
“I say, Miss Kenton, that was a surprisingly tasty meal.”
Stevens watches to moon rise over the dark line of the horizon. Klienpiet and Precilla excused themselves earlier, leaving Kenton and Stevens alone on the wide stoep of the house.
“Imagine eating meat that was roasted over coals! We never did anything like that back in England. But I do agree with you: it was delicious.” Sally Kenton glances at James Stevens. Will he ever be able to relax? Even act normally? After so many years as a butler, his mannerisms and way of talking are so ingrained, it’ll most probably never change.
“Tell me, Mister Stevens, would you ever consider another vocation? I mean, something else, other than being a butler?”
He’s silent for a minute or two, considering the words he must use..
“What a strange question, Miss Kenton. Like you well know, a butler is a job like no other. One must be versed n many aspects on the master’s life. As an example: if he wants a book from the library, one must know where to find it. On occasion one might want to make a remark on such a book – to please Mister Hartford, for instance, I’d recite a poem from the book. Or, if the book is more political in nature, one may say something on the subject when handing over the book.
“One must also be a fine judge of body language and psychology, Miss Kenton. One must not joke when master’s shoulders are slumped. When he complains about the candles at the table being too short, one should know the stock market is falling. When asked to converse on the subject, one must be able to offer an objective opinion on global economy and so forth.
“So, to answer your question, Miss Kenton, I don’t believe there are many jobs out there that offer the same challenge – or satisfaction – as being a butler. In my considered opinion, I think one should be content with what one has.”
Sally sighs. So many layers of veneer cover the true heart of this man! He’s like a disciplined soldier: he doesn’t question his circumstances – he merely serves to the best of his ability.
“I think a man of your capabilities may be quite successful in many other fields, Mister Stevens. It’s not that I am trying to tell you something; it’s just a silly question. To keep you talking, understand? I do so like to hear you speak.”
This time she gets a surprised glance from the butler. Miss Kenton likes to hear him speak? What an outlandish idea!
The yowling cry of a jackal drifts over the veld, followed by a chorus of answering calls. Sally Kenton feels the hair on the back of her neck rise; Africa is such a wild and dangerous place! Without meaning to do so, she moves even closer to Mister Stevens. Much to her relief, he puts a protective arm around her shoulders.
“No need to fret, Miss Kenton. The Kalahari is a natural habitat for the black-backed jackal. They don’t attack humans. They occur in two places in Africa: here in the Kalahari and then again in Kenya and Ethiopia on the other side of the continent. Did you know, Miss Kenton, that these jackals are the oldest extants of the genus Canis?”
“Oh no, Mister Stevens, I didn’t.” She’s glad it’s dark out here. With a mischievous grin, she snuggles even closer. “You know so much…please tell me more?”
It’s the oldest trick in the world. Tell a man he’s clever, and he’ll believe it to be the truth. So, while Stevens traces the origins of canids back to the Pleistocene Epoch – completely lost in the branching that gave birth to dogs and wolves – Sally Kenton slowly relaxes against his chest. Careful not to upset his narrative, she eventually has a hand resting on his thigh.
And Stevens; the butler extraordinaire; the man versed in poetry and psychology…well, like so many men before him, he though she was only interested in his vast knowledge…
Mevrou serves the pudding while fighting to keep a straight face. She actually enjoyed the evening. Oudoom has been his eloquent self while he peeled layer after layer off the Englishman’s complex personality.
Whether it was Oudooms psychiatric skills, or maybe the deep red Chiraz, we’ll never know. Maybe Hartford finally faced the surperficial nature of his character. Maybe… But when Mevrou placed his plate in front of him. Henry Hartfort II couldn’t help himself.
For the first time in many years, spontaneous laughter builds up inside the otherwise reserved man. He laughs, coughs, laughs some more. Eventually, after drying the tears from his cheeks, he looks at the smiling face of Mevrou.
“You did this on purpose, didn’t you?”
And Mevrou, with the ancient guile all women possess, gets up, winks at Oudoom, and walks around the table to hug the Englishman. She knows he’s just embarked on a journey of discovery – and she’s going to see to it that he doesn’t get lost.